DNA Barbarians at the Gates
March 15, 2018, 09:44 AM
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From The Atlantic, an interview with David Reich of Harvard who sequences the genomes of old dead bodies:

Ancient DNA Is Rewriting Human (and Neanderthal) History

The genomes of the long dead are turning up all sorts of unexpected and controversial findings.

SARAH ZHANG

Zhang: You’ve said that ancient DNA has changed the way we see archaeology from these time periods. How so?

Reich: Archaeology has always been political, especially in Europe. Archaeologists are very aware of the misuse of archaeology in the past, in the 20th century. There’s a very famous German archaeologist named Gustaf Kossinna, who was the first or one of the first to come up with the idea of “material culture.” Say, you see similar pots, and therefore you’re in a region where there was shared community and aspects of culture.

He went so far as to argue that when you see the spread of these pots, you’re actually seeing a spread of people and there’s a one-to-one mapping for those things.

His ideas were used by the Nazis later, in propaganda, to argue that a particular group in Europe, the Aryans, expanded in all directions across Europe. …

So after the Second World War, there was a very strong reaction in the European archaeological community—not just the Germans, but the broad continental European archaeological community—to the fact that their discipline had been used for these terrible political ends. And there was a retreat from the ideas of Kossinna.

Zhang: You actually had German collaborators drop out of a study because of these exact concerns, right? One of them wrote, “We must(!) avoid … being compared with the so-called ‘siedlungsarchäologie Method’ from Gustaf Kossinna!”

This is the Pots Not People orthodoxy: if you see in the archaeological record that a particular style of pottery spread, then the pots must have spread (via trade or copying), not the people who made the pots. (For example, if the corded ware pots of Aryan steppe warriors start showing up in the forested parts of Europe, this must have been due to, uh, good will gifts as part of a proto-UNESCO-sponsored cultural exchange program and not due to the Aryan steppe warriors coming in off the steppe and raping and pillaging. That idea would be … barbaric!

No doubt this general Pots Not People idea is true in some cases … and not true in other cases.

Reich: Yeah, that’s right. I think one of the things the ancient DNA is showing is actually the Corded Ware culture does correspond coherently to a group of people. [Editor’s note: The Corded Ware made pottery with cord-like ornamentation and according to ancient DNA studies, they descended from steppe ancestry.] I think that was a very sensitive issue to some of our coauthors, and one of the coauthors resigned because he felt we were returning to that idea of migration in archaeology that pots are the same as people. There have been a fair number of other coauthors from different parts of continental Europe who shared this anxiety.

We responded to this by adding a lot of content to our papers to discuss these issues and contextualize them. Our results are actually almost diametrically opposite from what Kossina thought because these Corded Ware people come from the East, a place that Kossina would have despised as a source for them. But nevertheless it is true that there’s big population movements, and so I think what the DNA is doing is it’s forcing the hand of this discussion in archaeology, showing that in fact, major movements of people do occur. They are sometimes sharp and dramatic, and they involve large-scale population replacements over a relatively short period of time. We now can see that for the first time.

What the genetics is finding is often outside the range of what the archaeologists are discussing these days.

Zhang: I think at one point in your book you actually describe ancient DNA researchers as the “barbarians” at the gates of the study of history.

Reich: Yeah.

Zhang: Does it feel that way? Have you gotten into arguments with archaeologists over your findings?

Reich: I think archaeologists and linguists find it frustrating that we’re not trained in the language of archaeology and all these sensitivities like about Kossinna. Yet we have this really powerful tool which is this way of looking at things nobody has been able to look at before.

The point I was trying to make there was that even if we’re not always able to articulate the context of our findings very well, this is very new information, and a serious scholar really needs to take this on board. It’s dangerous. Barbarians may not talk in an educated and learned way but they have access to weapons and ways of looking at things that other people haven’t looked to. And time and again we’ve learned in the past that ignoring barbarians is a dangerous thing to do.

But, but DNA proves race doesn’t exist! Would the new National Geographic lie to us?

[Comment at Unz.com]