DNA Evidence Supports John Locke’s Vacuum Domicilium Argument for Europeans Claiming New World Land Ownership

(p. A21) The population size of “pre-contact” Hispaniola . . . [is] a contested issue until the present day, not least because of its profound emotional and moral resonance in light of the destruction of that world. Modern scholars have generally estimated the population at 250,000 to a million people.

Some of the arguments for large population numbers in the pre-contact Americas have been motivated by an attempt to counter a myth, perpetuated by apologists for colonialism like the philosopher John Locke, that the Americas were a vast “vacuum domicilium,” or empty dwelling, populated by a handful of Indigenous groups whose displacement could be readily justified. In a similar vein, some of the arguments for large population sizes have been motivated by a desire to underscore how disastrous the arrival of Europeans was for Indigenous people.

By any measure, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic for Indigenous Americans. This is true whether the numbers of people were in the hundreds of thousands or millions — or for that matter, the tens of thousands. It is questionable to pin our judgments of human atrocities to a specific number. To learn from the past, it is crucial to be willing to accept new and compelling data when they become available.

In the case of the pre-contact population of Hispaniola, such data have arrived. By analyzing the DNA of ancient Indigenous Caribbean people, a study published in Nature on Wednesday [Dec. 16, 2020] by one of us (Professor Reich) makes clear that the population of Hispaniola was no more than a few tens of thousands of people. Almost all prior estimates have been at least tenfold too large.

. . .

The finding about the pre-contact population size in Hispaniola was made possible by a new scientific advance: We are now able to detect “DNA cousins” in ancient genomes — taking two people and determining whether they share large segments of DNA inherited from a recent ancestor. This is similar to what personal ancestry companies like 23andMe and Ancestry do with living people.

When the Reich team applied this method to 91 ancient individuals for whom it had sequenced enough of the genome to carry out this analysis, it found 19 pairs of DNA cousins living on different large islands or island groups in the Caribbean: for example, an individual in Hispaniola with a cousin in the Bahamas, and another individual in Hispaniola with a cousin in Puerto Rico. This meant that the entire population had to be very small; you wouldn’t find that random pairs of people had such a high probability of being closely related if the entire population was large.

For the full commentary, see:

David Reich and Orlando Patterson. “DNA Rewrites the Telling of the Caribbean’s Past.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 12, 2020): A21.

(Note: ellipses, bracketed word, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 23, 2020, and has the title “Ancient DNA Is Changing How We Think About the Caribbean.”)

The paper in Nature mentioned above is:

Fernandes, Daniel M., Kendra A. Sirak, Harald Ringbauer, Jakob Sedig, Nadin Rohland, Olivia Cheronet, Matthew Mah, Swapan Mallick, Iñigo Olalde, Brendan J. Culleton, Nicole Adamski, Rebecca Bernardos, Guillermo Bravo, Nasreen Broomandkhoshbacht, Kimberly Callan, Francesca Candilio, Lea Demetz, Kellie Sara Duffett Carlson, Laurie Eccles, Suzanne Freilich, Richard J. George, Ann Marie Lawson, Kirsten Mandl, Fabio Marzaioli, Weston C. McCool, Jonas Oppenheimer, Kadir T. Özdogan, Constanze Schattke, Ryan Schmidt, Kristin Stewardson, Filippo Terrasi, Fatma Zalzala, Carlos Arredondo Antúnez, Ercilio Vento Canosa, Roger Colten, Andrea Cucina, Francesco Genchi, Claudia Kraan, Francesco La Pastina, Michaela Lucci, Marcio Veloz Maggiolo, Beatriz Marcheco-Teruel, Clenis Tavarez Maria, Christian Martínez, Ingeborg París, Michael Pateman, Tanya M. Simms, Carlos Garcia Sivoli, Miguel Vilar, Douglas J. Kennett, William F. Keegan, Alfredo Coppa, Mark Lipson, Ron Pinhasi, and David Reich. “A Genetic History of the Pre-Contact Caribbean.” Nature 590, no. 7844 (Feb. 4, 2021): 103-10.

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