By Jada Benn Torres

from GeneWatch 27-2 | May-July 2014

For 14 years I have studied Caribbean communities as a way to think about how various social structures affect patterns of genetic diversity. In the process of addressing this question, I have also come to question how genetic ancestry in general might influence my project participants' ideas about themselves, their local community, and their nation. Given the history of "creolization" throughout the Caribbean, my recent field work in Jamaica, St. Vincent, and Trinidad has provided a great opportunity to reflect upon these questions.

The Accompong Maroons are descendants of Africans that refused enslavement and took to the hinterlands of Jamaica to build their lives.[1,2,3] Located roughly 36 miles south of Montego Bay in St. Elizabeth Parish, Accompong Town sits nestled among the foothills comprising Cockpit country. There are conflicting local histories about the origin of this community. One version states that the first Maroons were actually Jamaica's native population, known as Taíno, that had escaped Spanish persecution by moving into the inaccesible regions of the islands. Accordingly, African peoples later intermarried with the remaining Taíno and both Taíno and Africans contributed to fledging Maroon communities.[4,5,6,7] Another version of Accompong Maroon origins only acknowledges African people as formative in the community.[8] Both versions of Maroon origins are repeated by Maroons themselves and scholars of Maroon history.[9] Regardless of the origins of Accompong Maroons, they successfully waged war against the British, securing one of the earliest peace treaties for African-descended peoples in the Americas in 1739.[10] Maroons were required to assist in quelling slave rebellions and returning enslaved people to the plantations.[11] In effect, this treaty turned the Maroons into "a quasi-military force designed to maintain the institution of slavery, the government's justification for allowing an isolated free Black community in the midst of an island of masters and slaves".[12] After emancipation in 1838 and again after Jamaican independence from Britain in 1962, Britain and Jamaica respectively sought to implement procedures designed to integrate Maroons into the general populace. Accompong Town Maroons resisted some of these efforts, as assimilation into the Jamaican majority meant the appropriation of Maroon identity as well as Maroon lands.[13] Currently, Maroons hold fast to their traditions and remain in their ancestral lands, though many have had to emigrate due to changes in the economy.[14] Because of the history of this community, Accompong Town was an ideal place for me to examine the genetic contributions of African, indigenous Caribbean, and European peoples as well as explore the broader meanings of genetic ancestry within a Caribbean context.

The success of this project hinged upon gathering genetic samples collected on cheek swabs from willing community members. After obtaining the appropriate institutional and local approvals, I began to recruit for the study and subsequently faced a variety of responses to my request to join the study. Some potential participants were very interested and enthusiastically joined the study. For example, one participant, a politically-minded man in his early 50s, was moved by the potential outcome of the study. He explained that if Maroons were to provide evidence of indigenous Caribbean ancestry, there would be the potential to garner more protection of Maroon lands. He noted that if indigenous ancestry could be established, Maroons could argue for the associated rights of Native peoples to the land as put forth by Article 26 in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.[15] Beyond the prospect of learning more about his community's history, this particular participant was most interested in the potential political ramifications of having indigenous ancestry and what that might mean in terms of the community's right to territorial and political autonomy. In response to changes in law with emancipation and later Jamaican independence, Maroons have assumed a variety of tactics to both expand and protect the lands granted to them by the 1739 treaty from governmental incursions.[16] Accordingly, the question of potential indigenousness was central to his motivation for participating in the study.

Other people were happy to share what they knew about the community history but were not as willing to donate DNA for study. One individual, an older man well versed in the ethno-tourism endeavors within Accompong, spoke with me about the history and politics of the community. While he was was intrigued by the project, he declined my request to participate. He explained that while what could be learned from genetic ancestry could provide new insight into Maroon history, he was not comfortable with putting the swab into his mouth. Another potential participant, a man in his late 20s, explained that he was satisfied with Maroon history as it had been passed to him and therefore found the genetic ancestry research to be unecessary and intrusive. For these community members, genetic ancestry held no tangible value and they were content to leave it unexplored, though they did not object to the participation of other community members.

Finally, some people were suspicious of my motives and outright rejected any sort of involvement in the study. The distrust of my project may have emerged for a multitude of reasons. An older farmer sitting in his front yard after a morning of working in the bush explained to me that "no African had anything to do with that" (meaning genetic ancestry testing). This man was less inclined to participate because he, like many other community members, was wary of outsiders seeking to somehow exploit Maroons. Over the decades, many researchers have entered Accompong and very few return to share results or contribute to the community they studied. In these cases, genetic ancestry, or virtually any sort of research, was seen as potentially dangerous to both the individual and the community. This particular sentiment was expressed to me again upon subsequent visits to the community.

In 2014, I returned to Accompong to distribute participant results and create an exhibit of the project to be displayed in the community museum. In general, I found that participants were happy with the findings of the study, as it confirmed their understanding of the somewhat hybrid nature of Maroon origins (the details of the genetic ancestry study are in a forthcoming article). Beyond using the exhibit as an educational tool for students and visitors, at the moment it is too early to know what, if anything, the extended outcomes of the genetic ancestry work will be. However, through my conversations with participants about their results, many of the same topics as those I encountered during project recruitment were revisited. Notably, some participants wanted to discuss how the results could be used to improve and ensure Maroon interests. Other participants were very interested in learning more about their family's bio-geographical origins and history within Jamaica and beyond. Still, others took the results and filed them away among their belongings, giving no apparent additional consideration to the study, simply accepting my gratitude for participating. While the details of this particular project are unique to Accompong, the reactions to both my request and the project findings are reflective of the ideas surrounding genetic ancestry testing in other Anglophone islands, though the history and context of that work is very different.

In addition to the Maroon study, I am also part of an ongoing project with indigenous Caribbean communities in both Trinidad and in St. Vincent. In this community-sanctioned research, the focus of the project is to learn more about the initial migrations into the Caribbean as well as biological relationships among indigenous Caribbean peoples and native peoples from the circum-Caribbean region.[17] While there are community members that choose not to participate in the research, there are others that are excited to be part of the study. Like in Accompong, some participants feel heavily invested in the project as a means to learn about their family lineages for personal reasons. Other participants seem most interested in how the community at large could benefit politically from participation or are more ambivalent about the study. Nonetheless, with the return of some of the project results, participants in both islands tend to discuss their indigenous ancestry in addition to acknowledging their mixed ancestry.

I found that overall, genetic ancestry results mean different things to different people; however, what seems fairly unique to the Caribbean is how the genetic data are not necessarily disruptive of existing narratives of nationalism and creolization. Whether it is Maroons of Jamaica or native peoples of St. Vincent and Trinidad, there is almost an expectation of ancestry from multiple regions of the world. This expectation of hybridity, passed from generation to generation as family history, is indeed manifested in the DNA of many participants. Perhaps, then, it should be no surprise that cultural notions of 'coming together' would also be reflected in the national identity of most islands. Jamaica, for example, has the national motto "Out of many, One People." Trinidad's motto is "Together we aspire, together we achieve." These mottos are a nod to strength in diversity and are hardly unique to either island. Reflecting on my research and the relationships I have built with study participants throughout the islands, genetic ancestry gives new perspective to colonization, resistance, and diversity in the Caribbean.

Jada Benn Torres is a molecular anthropologist who examines population genetic history and variation of African Caribbean populations. She is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.



1. Kopytoff B. (1976) The development of Jamaican Maroon ethnicity. Caribbean Quarterly 22: 33-50.

2. Campbell MC. (1988) The Maroons of Jamaica, 1655-1796 : A history of resistance, collaboration & betrayal. South Hadley: Bergin & Garvey. 296 p.

3. Robinson C. (2007) The Iron Thorn: The defeat of the British by the Jamaican Maroons. Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing Limited. 656 p.

4. Wright M. (1994) The heritage of Accompong Maroons. In: Agorsah EK, editor. Maroon heritage: Archaeological ethnographic and historical perspectives. Jamaica: Canoe press. 210 p.

5. Carey B. (1997) The Maroon story: The authentic and original history of the Maroons in the history of Jamaica, 1490-1880 (A Maroon and Jamaica heritage series). Gordon Town: Agouti Press. 656 p.

6. Brandon G. (2004) Jamaican Maroons. In: Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology. 754 p.

7. Bilby KM. (2005) True-born maroons. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 528 p.

8. Campbell (1988).

9. Campbell (1988), Carey (1997).

10. Kopytoff (1976).

11. Abramson A, Theodossopoulos D. (2000) Land, law, and environment: Mythical land, legal boundaries. London; Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press. 224 p.

12. Thompson M. (2012) Land, law and community among the Accompong Maroons in post-emancipation Jamaica. Doctoral Dissertation, New York University. 1-262.

13. Agorsah EK, editor. (1994) Maroon heritage: Archaeological, ethnographic, and historical perspectives. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press. 210 p.

14. Chang MM. (2007) The Jamaican Accompong maroons: Continuities and transformations. Dissertation Abstracts International, Section A: The Humanities and Social Sciences 69: 305.

15. Assembly UG. (2007) United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. UN Wash 12: 1-18.

16. Ambramson (2000), Thompson (2012).

17. Benn Torres JP, Vilar MG, Torres GA, Gaieski JB, Steveson M, et al. (2014) A genetic history of indigenous American mitochondrial DNA lineages of the Caribbean. AJPA 153: 76-76.

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