Pseudo-ethnicity and neo-dogmatism

Source of illustration:

First posted on 20111027. Updated 20120214. French version: click here

An interesting controversy has been going on for a couple of days in the quiet circles of anthropology. What started it all is an article on the site of  NatureNews about the genetics of populations descended from the Taínos, the autochtonous population of the Caribbean islands. The article originally mentioned that the Taínos were extinct. It happens, however, that there are many people who rightly or wrongly consider themselves Taínos, which quickly escalated the discussion beyond scientific circles.

We live at a dangerous time: climate itself changes only reluctantly, as it is closely monitored by the custodians of orthodoxy (click  herehere, or here for the latest “affair”), and even some neutrinos travelling from Geneva have apparently been defying some time-proven rule by arriving ahead of schedule at the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy! One cannot be too careful, and Nature did  the right thing: they apologized (This article originally stated that the Taíno were extinct, which is incorrect. Nature apologizes for the offence caused, and has corrected the text to better explain the research project described).

The fundamental question is this: what is a people? Based on the analysis of my DNA, I do know that I belong to the R1b1a2a1a1b3 haplogroup, a Celt of the Treviri tribe. We originated somewhere around Switzerland, Tyrol and Northern Italy, and we are usually associated with the La Tène-Hallstatt iron age culture. God knows why, there is also a remote island of  R1b1a2a1a1b3 in  Bashkortostan. I am entitled to declare that I am a Celtic Celt, even if that statement commits only myself.

Being a Taíno is quite another kettle of fish. A person who considers herself a Taíno states here that (just like Jewishness) Tainicity is passed along through mothers. Let us do a little Gedankenexperiment: let’s start with a “pure” Taíno woman in 1492; she and her descendants marry only  non Taínos. What do we see in 2011? I am not very familiar with the typical features of “true” Taínos, but it is very likely that I would not recognize them. It’s not unlike  Oglalas, Apaches and Mohicans, who now look much more like Mr and Mrs Smith than their precolombian ancestors (except, maybe, the Mohican). M. Tienda (2012) stresses that “genealogy” has little to do with biology, but that culture plays a major role in a somewhat mysterious part: If genealogies are largely fabricated cultural narratives about social descent rather than accurate histories of ancestors and descendants (and if the boundaries demarcating race, ethnicity and nationality are chimwerical) why do they resonate with experts and lay audiences alike?

If a person declares himself a Walloon (see how careful I am!) or an Oglala Sioux, then that person is indeed a Walloon or an Oglala. I remember reading the following sentence by Malraux at a time when I was a big Malraux fan, and Malraux himself was a minister of de Gaulle (from 1959 to 1969: I was not quite 20 yet!):  est Juif qui se veut Juif  (a Jew is he who wants to be a Jew); I am sure Khazars won’t disagree.

Of course, it is not by their own choice that Taínos, Oglalas and Apaches became so hybridized; they are nevertheless much more mixed than in 1492. I agree with  Dienekes that Taínos exist considerably less in  2011 than in  1492, even if it is perfectly legitimate for a person to declare herself Taíno. What is it then, that objectively defines a Taíno? Language? Some people say that only a couple of words survived in a  language mixed with a lot of Spanish, while others claim the language still exists. On the other hand, we do know that languages and ethnicity do not always coincide  (see, for instance, Cavalli-Sforza, 1994).

No one can exclude the possibility that there exists somewhere a true ethnic Taíno who is not even aware of it. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the  R1b1a2a1a1b3 Celt who does not speak a word of Taíno, except maybe  colibri, iguana and tabacù ,and who certainly is not a Taíno. Between these two extremes, everything is possible.

There is a moral to this story: political correctness sometimes comes at a cost. It is not possible to agree with everybody without giving up some principles. In other words, the distance is not so great between the apologies of Nature and tolerance towards all kinds of weird beliefs and attitudes.


L.L. Cavalli-Sforza. 1997. Genes, peoples, and languages. PNAS, 94:7719–7724. Available here.

Tienda, M. 2012. Imaginary identities. Nature, 335:659. The article is a review of the book Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011. 238 pp.


(1) I could not find Malraux’ original quote on the web. It’s either the only quote that’s not on the web, or my memory fails me. Can someone kindly help?


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