The Spanish conquest of the Americas was devastating for native peoples. Many native men died in conflicts with the invaders. Male Spanish colonists often came without their wives and took native women as partners. A new genetic analysis of Panamanian men by a team including a Smithsonian scientist shows this historical legacy: only 22 percent had Y-chromosomes of native origin, even though most Panamanians are of female indigenous ancestry.
Everyone has a pair of sex chromosomes that determine their gender. Females have two X-chromosomes, while males have one X and one Y, the latter inherited from their father. These chromosomes are found in each cell's nucleus. Another genetic component called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is found in cells outside the nucleus. Both males and females inherit their mtDNA from their mother alone. Over time, small mutations accumulate in both mtDNA and Y-chromosomes, allowing scientists to trace their history.
A team of geneticists from the University of Pavia including Antonio Torroni found that among the 408 Panamanian men whose genetics were analyzed, 60 percent had Y-chromosomes that originated in West Eurasia and North Africa (probably mostly from Europe). About 22 percent were of Native American origin, 6 percent from sub-Saharan Africa and 2 percent from South Asia (probably China or the Indian sub-continent). In contrast, a large majority of this group--including nearly all those with Native American, African and Asian Y-chromosomes--had mtDNA of indigenous origin. Among men with Eurasian Y-chromosomes, 13 percent had mtDNA from sub-Saharan Africa and only a very few had European mtDNA.