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URUGUAY
Indigenous lineage
Pablo Long
8/29/2007
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Study reveals one-third of Uruguayans have Charrua blood.

For almost two centuries since Uruguay gained its independence from Spain, many of the country’s residents have believed that they have no indigenous blood and have boasted about having the most “European” ancestries on the American continent.

But a new study shows that more than a third of the some 3.5 million Uruguayans do have at least some blood from the Charrua indigenous people.

“We have been studying our genetic roots for a long time: first through our morphological features, later with bloodlines, and now molecularly, and there’s no doubt that there is a strong indigenous presence in our population’s DNA,” said anthropologist Mónica Sans, director of the Biological Anthropology Department of the state University of the Republic, which conducted the study. “In the 19th century the Charrúas were massacred, but the extermination doesn’t mean that they didn’t leave descendants behind.”

“The results found by different studies go completely against what was thought to be the Uruguayan identity. We always thought, since that was how our official history went, that we were a people transplanted from Europe, and that may be true on a cultural level, but at a blood level we’re clearly not,” Sans added.

Myth busted
Uruguayans had boasted of their official story until now. The Libro del Centenario, or Centenary Book, which marked the 100 years since the country’s first call for independence on August 25, 1825, stated that Uruguay was “the only South American country that doesn’t have Indians, and as a result [doesn’t have] the problems that Indians cause.”

On April 11, 1831 the few Charrúas who survived the war of independence — they were among the ranks of the liberation army — were killed in a trap that then-President Fructuoso Rivera set up for them on the banks of the Salsipuedes stream, 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Montevideo.

Rivera, who used the indigenous group in his military campaigns, signed the extermination order by saying “we feel obligated to act in such a way for the structuring of a society that must be organized by order and respect for private property.”

He justified his order saying that the Charrúas held “the most beautiful and coveted portion of land in the Republic.”

Sans said the studies are still in their preliminary stages — it lacks data on a department level — but she explains that mitochondrial DNA, which is transmitted only by the mother — has shown “enormous surprises,” because previous studies spoke of indigenous ancestries of between 10 and 20 percent depending on the region. But she says that now in some departments such as Tacuarembo, in northern Uruguay, the rate is as high as 62 percent.

“We estimate that indigenous ancestry on a national level could be around 40 percent,” said Enrique Auyanet, a memberof the Association of Descendants of the Charrúa Nation (ADENCH). He added that other studies such as that of Cynthia Pagano, director of the police force’s biological laboratory, estimate that the rate could be 31 percent. “To that 31 percent, you have to add everything that is lost, because the male doesn’t transmit it.”

Sans agrees. “That 31 percent only includes what is transmitted by the mother. How many could there be who don’t have Charrúa blood from the maternal side, but do have it on the paternal side? It’s correct to estimate indigenous ancestry to be no less than 40 percent,” she said.

Conquest-era heritage
Most anthropologists share Sans’ hypothesis about why Uruguayans could have such a high level of indigenous blood in their DNA. They say that during the Spanish Conquest, the men arrived without women and settled in the countryside. They had children with indigenous women, children who remained in the countryside, and they are today the country’s base population, as it has been observed in the Tacuarembó DNA study.

But the weight of the official history that was told since the times of the Salsipuedes genocide is so powerful that in the most recent census in 2006, only 3.5 percent of those surveyed — just over 115,000 Uruguayans — said they have an indigenous ancestor.

“The official history has made us hide our identities and I think that what is appearing now is a positive perception about who we are,” said Auyanet. “It’s been difficult to perceive ourselves as having an Indian origin, since there are no more [indigenous] communities, there are no physical features, nor skin colorings that are clearly distinct, and within the family it was never spoken of clearly, or because the elders really ignore who their ancestors were, or in some way it made them of ashamed to recognize their Charrúa origin.”

For Sans, this recognition of identity has a lot to do with the forced exile of thousands of Uruguayans during the 1973-85 military dictatorship.
“Beyond genetic data, which are just from those years, there was a change in mentality. We always thought of ourselves as the Europeans of America, but when we had to go to Europe, we were discriminated against and included as some sort of lesser race ... we were no longer Europeans as we had thought. It was a positive shock,” Sans said.

Some today, who call themselves Charrúas and admit that there is not cultural continuity, have reclaimed the recovery of the scant legacy left by their ancestors: living in harmony with nature, the way they ride horses and dominate animals without punishing them, cooking and some 60 terms clearly identified by linguists.


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