Peten Lakes DNA Project


Situations of cultural contact and colonialism involve various sorts of “biocultural impacts”—the most well-known of which is population loss from epidemics. Yet, some loss attributed to epidemics occurred as refugees fled occupied communities. Populations were also biologically impacted by the destruction of indigenous community organization and settlement into reduced communities (reducciones). Reducciones placed populations under direct colonial control and facilitated the exploitation of labor. Such labor likely differed from that of indigenous communities and was probably more intense. Another biocultural product of contact was gene flow that occurred as foreign individuals reproduced with local populations. Finally, foodways transformed with the introduction of foreign domesticates and practices as well as the colonial appropriation of resources.

The Petén Lakes DNA Project will investigate the biocultural effects of cultural entanglements though the genetic and osteological examination of humans remains recovered by various archaeological projects in the Petén lakes region of Guatemala from 1994 to 2014. The research will explore how interactions with European (primarily Spanish, but also British and Irish) and African populations impacted the Maya of Petén, Guatemala from the Contact period (A.D. 1525-1697) through the Spanish Colonial period (A.D. 1697-1821). We expect that when compared with pre-Columbian skeletal remains, those of the Contact and Colonial periods will display evidence of increased indigenous population movement, admixture with European and African populations, increased muscular stress, dietary syncretism, and possibly increased dietary stress. These hypotheses will be tested through the analysis of DNA extracted from skeletal remains recovered from various sites (primarily Zacpetén and Tayasal) in the Petén lakes region that date from the Middle Postclassic period (A.D. 1200-1400) through the Colonial period. The analyses will be conducted in Malhi Molecular Anthropology Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to infer maternal ancestry origins.  The mtDNA can also be used to assess genetic diversity and relatedness among those sampled.  These results will provide insight for how Contact and Colonial periods impacted ancestry and genetic diversity of subsequent generations.