Genographic Sets Sail to the Dominican Republic

‘The Dominican Republic has it all.’  That phrase is not just the slogan that tourists see when visiting the beautiful Caribbean nation, but it is also what a team of geneticists and anthropologists are hoping to show as they embark on a one-of-a-kind study across the eastern half of the island of Hispañola.

Map of the Caribbean Region. Courtesy of National Georaphic.

Drs. Theodore Schurr and Miguel Vilar, two Genographic Project scientists, recently visited the Caribbean country to help launch an ambitious project that intends to map the diversity and ancestry of the people of the Dominican Republic, and by doing so better understand the history of the region.  The project is being led a team of Dominican researchers and is part of a collaboration between La Universidad Iberoamericana (UNIBE) and La Academia Dominicana de la Historia, both in Santo Domingo, and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Sanaigua
Dr. Theodore Schurr, UNIBE student Ana Lucia Mercedes, and Dr. Robert Paulino (background) in Sanaigua, Dominican Republic. Photo by Miguel Vilar

Over the course of the next several months, researchers and students from UNIBE will visit most provinces in the country and meet with people from at least 25 different communities.  They hope to enroll some 1000 individuals and analyze the DNA samples and demographic histories collected from them.

“Visiting the remote communities really shows us the great diversity of our country, the culture, the idiosyncrasies of the inhabitants of the various provinces, and the richness of what we are,” explains Dr. Robert Paulino, lead researcher and UNIBE professor. “We are the instruments of mother Africa, the nobility of the indigenous Taino, and the European adventurer. That mixture is what makes us Dominicans.” Once completed, this project will be one of the most comprehensive studies conducted in a single country during the Genographic Project’s 10-year history.

Dr. Miguel Vilar explains the project to participants in Sanaigua, DR. Drs. Schurr and Paulino (right) and the UNIBE team listen in. Photo by Ricardo Domingo.

With keen interest in Caribbean history, in 2014 Vilar and Schurr published an article on the genetic diversity of Puerto Rico explaining how the DNAs of modern Puerto Ricans show patterns of both historic and prehistoric (pre-colonial) importance.  And just last month the two scientists teamed up with Dr. Jada Benn-Torres of Notre Dame University and indigenous leaders from the islands of St. Vincent and Trinidad on a new publication that shows how the genetic patterns in those Lesser Antillean communities inform us about early Caribbean migrations, as well as colonial practices and hardships of the last five-hundred years.

“We’re really trying to connect the dots and understand the migration, the flow of people in and out of the region,” said Schurr. “Each island seems to have its distinct history.” To learn more about this and other work of the Genographic Project work visit www.genographic.com.

Changing Planet

Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.