Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Indigenous Founding Mothers of the Americas

Many thanks to the author of the following article, Rick Kearns (, for the permission to reproduce his article below. This website's Creative Commons license does not apply to this piece. The article originally appeared in Indian Country Today (, on November 9, 2006. Rick Kearns is also the author of several pieces on the Taino restoration movement that appeared in Issues in Caribbean Amerindian Studies--please see:

The indigenous roots of Colombia are coming into focus, as it is yet another Latin American nation learning about its true history: the founding mothers of Colombia were indigenous.

According to a recently released DNA survey, 85.5 percent of all Colombian women have indigenous mitochondria, a component of DNA that is passed down unaltered through the maternal line.

Dr. Emilio Yunis Turbay, a distinguished scientist who founded the Genetics Institute at the National University at Bogota, was the principle author of the study. Yunis Turbay assembled a team of specialists, including his son, Dr. Juan Jose Yunis, who analyzed 1,522 samples of mitochondrial (mt) DNA from across Colombia.

The final analysis yielded a startling conclusion: Almost 90 percent of all Colombian women have a Native grandmother in their ancestry. This finding echoes the results gathered in Puerto Rico three years ago, where it was discovered that 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans had indigenous mitochondrial DNA.

According to Dr. Juan Martinez Cruzado, author of the Puerto Rico study, this signals a trend.

''This seems to be a common thread in all Latin America,'' he asserted. ''I spoke with a Mexican researcher who tested some Mexicans in the north of their country as well as Mexicans living in the southwestern United States, and over 80 percent of them had the indigenous mitochondrial DNA.''

Martinez Cruzado added that he had examined 16 indigenous mtDNA samples from Aruba recently and 86 percent of those samples showed the indigenous mtDNA. He has been in contact with Venezuelan scientists who informed him that a majority of the residents of Caracas, the capital city, also contained indigenous mtDNA.

''And in Argentina, which is so white, so European and which is most identified with Italy and Spain, most of the Argentineans also have indigenous mtDNA, according to the research of the well-known scientist Claudio Bravi,'' asserted Martinez Cruzado.

The presence of these grandmothers in the histories of Colombia and probably all of Latin America will force a re-evaluation of each country's story. And while the role of fathers and grandfathers is very important in any culture, it is the mother who teaches the children directly. It is the mother and grandmother who transmit the cultural values and beliefs.

For anyone who comes from Latin America, a great many of us are ''part-Indian.'' The ramifications of this historical fact will produce some similar results as well as some that are unique to each country.

Yunis Turbay put forward a similar argument in other media statements. He noted that upon analyzing the genetic structure of the Colombian population, one re-invents the history of the country as one reaches the conclusion that Colombia (like many Latin American countries) is genetically fragmented. But for Colombians specifically, there is another aspect of their genetic fragmentation that bears examination, according to the famous scientist.

There are ''the mulattoes on one side, the blacks on another, the indigenous in another, the white mestizos [mixes] in another,'' he pointed out. ''One begins to make a picture that shows a country made up of genetic patches. Looking at it this way explains the utilization of the tools of power to exclude populations,'' he asserted.

''The unity of Colombia is made by 'superstructures,' not by a structural development based on means of communication that integrate the market, allowing for the exchange of products, of cultures and unions of different origins,'' he continued. ''We have made Colombia a very unequal country, and what is worse, with citizens of different categories. We have regionalized race.''

Yunis Turbay and others in Colombia there are trying desperately to unify the country, an extremely difficult task for now. However, there is a good chance that Yunis Turbay's research and calls for action will be taken seriously. He is possibly the most well-respected scientist in his country, who has also contributed to national Colombian discussion on identity. He conducted a larger genetic study of the country in 1992 and authored a book, ''Why Are We This Way? What Happened in Colombia? An Analysis of the Mixing (Mestizaje).'' This work contains a series of essays in which he connected genetics, history, geography and politics to advance his argument of how to unify the country through markets and geography.

Here's hoping that his fellow Colombians are listening to him. Here's an idea: Maybe we should invite him to study the U.S. population, starting with Washington, D.C. Just a thought.

Rick Kearns is a freelance writer of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.

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