Reconstructing Latin America’s African past

For this month’s blog post I read the below article and watched the attached Ted talk on the Palenque people of Colombia. The Palenque people have lived in isolation for roughly 400 years, with no education and resources, and no official history. This group of people had no recolection or knowledge of their history or their origins. All they knew is that they were freedom fighters, the first officially free Black people anywhere in the Americas. They speak their own language, Palenquero, a Spanish-based creole language. Through studying their language and ultimately their DNA, professor Armin Schewegler managed to reconstruct their history and origins. 

It was fascinating to learn about their ritual language, for example when someone dies they chant a chant from Africa, and were moved by the words but they did not understand the meaning of what they sung. Once translated from its original language, Kikongo, one of these chants included a major clue to where this community came from: “From the Kongo people I am”.

As the research progressed through the years, more similarities were found between the Palenquero and Kikongo. For example, the word for cattle and snake is the same in both languages, and it became clear that there was a strong connection between these languages, however it was just a hypothesis. At this time population genetics had read linguists’s articles and wanted to team up to collect data in Palenque and in Africa, and obtained DNA from 42 population groups, and were able to zero in the Mayombe region of KiKongo, a very small community. The DNA data confirmed precisely what they hypothesized: the Palenque people came from Congo.

This is such a significant and emotional finding because this stigmatized group with no history now know their roots and have regained their pride, 400 years later.

One thought on “Reconstructing Latin America’s African past

  1. It is interesting how the world consist of various different types of Creole languages. Spanish based Creoles are also not often thoroughly studied in the field of linguistics and speech.
    The influence of African languages found in Palenquero is similar to Gullah Geechee, Jamaican Patios and Belizean Kriol. The colonial past of many of these countries that these languages derive from are greatly influenced by those who colonized them. Sometimes I wonder what languages would have emerged if most countries were not colonized!

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