The Titicaca basin was the cradle of some of the major complex societies of pre-Columbian South America and is today home to three surviving native languages: Quechua, Aymara, and Uro. This study seeks to contribute to reconstructing the population prehistory of the region, by providing a first genetic profile of its inhabitants, set also into the wider context of South American genetic background.


We report the first mitochondrial DNA first hypervariable segment sequences of native populations of the environs of Lake Titicaca: speakers of Aymara and Quechua, and the “Uros” of the Lake's floating islands. We sampled Aymara speakers from a locality where the Uro language was formerly documented, to check for possible language shift patterns. These data are compared with those for other Amerindian populations, collated from already published sources.


Our results uncover the genetic distinctiveness of our formerly Uro but now Aymara-speaking sample, in contrast with a relative homogeneity for all the other Central Andean samples.


The genetic affinities that characterize Central Andean populations are highly consistent with the succession of expansive polities in the region, culminating with the Incas. In the environs of Lake Titicaca, however, one subset of the present day Aymara-speaking population exhibits a peculiar position: perhaps a genetic correlate to their original Uro linguistic lineage (now extinct in the area), tallying with ethnohistorical claims for the distinctiveness of the Uro population. Our results emphasize the need for genetic descriptions to consider the widespread phenomenon of language shift. Am. J. Hum. Biol., 2011. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.