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Genetic Study Shows History of Latin America

March 22, 2008

A new genetic study conducted by a team of international researchers sheds light on Latin America’s history, finding that European colonization resulted in a dramatic shift from a native American populace to one that is mainly mixed.

However, some areas within Latin America, such as Mexico City, still preserve a genetic heritage due to the high numbers of native populations during European colonization.

The study’s findings suggest that male European settlers slaughtered the native men, and mated with native and African women.

“The history of Latin America has entailed a complex process of population mixture between natives and recent immigrants across a vast geographic region,” the researchers wrote in a report about the study,” the researchers wrote, in a report about the study.

“Few details are known about this process or about how it shaped the genetic make-up of Latin American populations.”

The study examined 249 unrelated individuals in seven countries, ranging from Mexico in the north to Chile in the south.  All of the individuals were from one of 13 Mestizo populations with mixed European/native American heritage.

“There is a clear genetic signature,” said Professor Andres Luiz-Linares of University College London, the study’s lead author.

“The initial mixing occurred predominately between immigrant and European men and native and African women,” he said, adding that the researchers observed a uniform pattern across all of Latin America.

“We see it in all the populations we examined, so it is clearly a historical fact that the ancestors of these populations can be traced to matings between immigrant men and native and African women.”

However, the team discovered genetic variations within the Latin American populations.

“The Mestizo with the highest native ancestry are in areas which historically have had relatively large native populations,” the team wrote in the report.

Indeed, areas such as Mexico City and the Andean regions were well established by the time European colonization began late in the 15th century.

“By contrast, the Mestizo with the highest European ancestry are from areas with relatively low pre-Columbian native population density and where the current native population is sparse,” they wrote.

The researchers believe the native male population was slaughtered during colonization.

“It is a very sad and terrible historical fact, they were basically annihilated,” said Professor Luiz-Linares.

“Not only did the European settlers take away land and property, they also took away the women and, as much as possible, they exterminated the men.”

Professor Luiz-Linares said the findings could change perceptions of Latin American history.

“It is very important in terms of rescuing the past and recognizing the roots of the population, and the living presence of natives within the current population,” he said.

As well as providing an insight into Latin America’s history, the team hopes the study will also assist with medical studies that identify and analyze diseases.

The study appears in the journal Public Library of Science Genetics.  A full report can be viewed here.

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