Tracing Chile’s indigenous roots through genetics and linguistics

By | June 5, 2023

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Graphic abstract. Credit: Current biology (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.05.013

How do today’s indigenous communities of South America trace the history of human migration and contact on the continent? An international team has been working to reconstruct the legacy of Chile’s largest indigenous community, the Mapuche, in an effort to strengthen their representation in the continent’s history. The Mapuche seem to have lived in relative isolation for a long time, but they are influenced by other populations in the central Andes and in southern Chile.

South America was the last continent to be colonized by man. The first migrants moved rapidly from North to South America in the Late Pleistocene, about 15,000 years ago, as evidenced by the first traces of human presence in what is now south-central Chile.

Human migrations have brought multiple ancestry flows, but how they interacted and the exact paths they took are not well resolved. A new international study sheds light on those missing links, starting by contextualizing today’s indigenous ancestors and highlighting the depth of their pre-Hispanic roots in the Americas.

Genetic origins in the southern Andes

A research group led by the University of Zurich (UZH), in collaboration with the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, studied the genetic ancestry of the Mapuche in concert with linguistic, archaeological and historians.

“We compared the genetic profile of participants of Mapuche ancestry with data from many other populations in the Americas, including ancient DNA from archaeological digs,” says Epifana Arango-Isaza, a Ph.D. student at UZH who led the study.

The genetic ancestry of the Mapuche is typical of the Southern Cone, the southernmost part of the continent, which has so far been underrepresented in genetic and historical studies. Other notable genetic ancestors in South America include one found primarily in the central Andes and another primarily found in the Amazon.

“The ancestors of the Mapuche separated from the inhabitants of the far south over 4,000 years ago and did not encounter the subsequent migratory flows from the north that reached the central Andes and parts of the Amazon,” says the first author.

Relations within the Andes and the South

The Andes form the longest mountain range in the world. European ethnographers once tended to conceive of the Andes as a homogeneous and interconnected cultural unit. However, past relationships between peoples in the Andes now appear more nuanced. Chiara Barbieri, lead author of the study at UZH, says: ‘We see that the distinct Mapuche lineages originated locally and remained in relative isolation. This general isolation is punctuated by episodes of contact with other South American populations over the last millennium or so. . ”

Paul Heggarty, a linguist based at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology during this study, adds: ‘The main genetic link is with the central Andes, mirroring how even domesticated crops like the potato spread south, as well as a handful of loanwords borrowed from Quechua into Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche.” This contact may be from before contact with the Inca Empire.

Other specific links point south to the southernmost tip of the Andes.

“We found that several Mapuche territorial identities: Pehuenche from the Andes, Lafkenche on the coast and Huilliche from Chilo Island are related to each other, but the Huilliche still bear traces of genetic contact with the far south. This could be a genetic signature original structure of other groups known as the Chono, who once inhabited Chilo,” explains Kentaro Shimizu, professor of genetics and director of the “University Research Priority Program in Evolution in Action” at UZH.

Participation of indigenous and local communities

The study was developed through a direct exchange with the participants. “Traditional stories and reports tell of a deep legacy of Mapuche culture in the region. Our work has value for participants in how they feel represented,” says Mara Jos Aninao, a Mapuche linguist and co-author of the study.

Chiara Barbieri concludes: “We also recorded the process of discussing the results with participants and cultural representatives in a documentary that is now ready to be distributed. In it we try to explain the complexity of indigenous identities today, from conversations with people in Chile who had Mapuche ancestry or even self-identified as Mapuche.”

The work is published in the journal Current biology.

More information:
Chiara Barbieri, The genetic history of the southern Andes from the current Mapuche ancestors, Current biology (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.05.013. … 0960-9822(23)00607-3

About the magazine:
Current biology

#Tracing #Chiles #indigenous #roots #genetics #linguistics

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