Colonialism and the Co-evolution of Ethnic and Genetic Structure in New Mexico

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OBJECTIVE: Socially constructed ethnic identities are frequently rooted in beliefs about common descent that form when people with disparate cultures, languages, and biology come into contact. This study explores connections between beliefs about common descent, as represented by ethnic nomenclatures, and histories of migration and isolation ascertained from genomic data in New Mexicans of Spanish-speaking descent (NMS).

MATERIALS AND METHODS: We interviewed 507 NMS who further identified using one of seven ethnic terms that they associated with beliefs about connections to past ancestors. For groups of individuals who identified using each term, we estimated biogeographic ancestry, fit admixture models to ancestry distributions, and partitioned genetic distance into admixture and drift components.

RESULTS: Regardless of which ethnic term they used, all NMS had appreciable Native American (avg. 27%) and European ancestry (avg.71%). However, individuals who identified using terms associated with beliefs connecting them to colonial-period Spanish ancestors had significantly higher European ancestry than individuals who identified using terms associated with ancestral connections to post-colonial-period migrants from Mexico. Model-fitting analyses show that this ancestry difference reflects post-colonial gene flow with non-NMS European Americans, not colonial-period gene flow with Spaniards. Drift, not admixture, accounted for most of the genetic distance between NMS who expressed connections to Mexican versus Spanish ancestors, reflecting relative isolation of New Mexico and Mexico through the 19th century.

DISCUSSION: Patterns of genomic diversity in NMS are consistent with beliefs about common descent in showing that New Mexico was isolated for generations following initial colonization. They are inconsistent with these beliefs in showing that all NMS have substantial European and Native American ancestry, and in showing that a proportion of European ancestry derives from post-colonial-period admixture with non-NMS European Americans. Our findings provide insights into the construction of ethnic identity in contexts of migration and isolation in New Mexico and, potentially, throughout human prehistory.