Please update your browser

You're using a version of Internet Explorer that isn't supported by Questia.
To get a better experience, go to one of these sites and get the latest
version of your preferred browser:

Genetics, Archaeology and the Wider World

By Pluciennik, Mark | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Genetics, Archaeology and the Wider World

Pluciennik, Mark, Antiquity

Molecular biology is prompting a renewed interest in genetic histories of ancient peoples. What are the old 'ethnic units' of these modern studies?

In her recent review (1995), Erika Hagelberg referred to Cavalli-Sforza, Menozzi & Piazza's enormous book, The history and geography of human genes (1994), as having the 'feel and authority' of a Bible. There may, unfortunately, be further parallels: the Bible has been the cause of many arguments as well as rather more damaging clashes, most of which derive from differing interpretations as well as disputed authority. Modern academic research into genetics has become part of a revitalized debate by a variety of people about the relevance of evolutionary theory and the relationship of genetic data to behaviour, culture, identity, and race. Although Cavalli-Sforza et al. are clearly at the responsible end of the spectrum of debate, the 'dismay of scholars in less "trendy" subjects than genetics' at the direction of much funding is caused by more than mere jealousy over research money.

While part of the field certainly includes the discussion of DNA evidence in a murder trial, in other contexts Zhirinovsky's supporters in Russia are calling for new research - by anthropologists and geneticists among others - to 'prove' the disadvantages of racial impurity. The interpretation of the mass of genetic material is certainly 'not without its problems', when Robert Sokal, whom Hagelberg mentions approvingly, is also publishing articles such as Genetic relationships of European populations reflect their ethnohistorical affinities (Sokal et al. 1993). Those authors have 'employed a European ethnohistory database, developed in our laboratory' which 'documents the known locations and movements of 891 ethnic units over the past 4,000 years' (1993: 56). The data-base contains records which 'list the name of a "gens" or tribe (or that of an archaeological horizon in the case of prehistorical records)' [my emphasis] (1993: 57).

The genetic researcher has to pretend that some assigned or claimed identity in the present relates to some constant which can be extrapolated back into the distant past. But as Moore (1995: 30) has also pointed out, Cavalli-Sforza et al. (not to mention Sokal and his colleagues) seem unaware of the 'transitory nature of ethnic identity', and happily revive the old culture=people hypothesis. Archaeological assemblages are treated as if defining people in a way archaeology has found unreasonable for decades. Apart from such historical and archaeological naivete, the point is that this genetic data and these interpretations are not being presented in a political vacuum, however much people might wish them to be.

A second problem derives from the lack of time resolution inherent in genetic studies of modern populations. Take this example from the same authors discussing their genetic maps of Europe (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1993: 642-3):

The expansions of pastoral nomads . . . may well explain the migrations of people speaking Indo-European languages not only to India but also to Europe, as suggested by Gimbutas but rejected by other archaeologists including Renfrew. The synthetic maps based on the third . . . and sixth PCs [Principal Components] of Europe indicate expansions that correspond geographically to two of the three origins of Kurgan expansions suggested by Gimbutas [between 4000 and 2500 BC]. On the other hand, these may be partially confused with the later expansions of, for example, the Scythians and of barbarians who infiltrated or conquered the Roman Empire before and after its fall.

In other words, modern genetic studies are at present unable to distinguish on genetic grounds between possible movements of people and consequent distribution of genes over a period of four millennia. Much of the genetic information can only be used to suggest population processes with genetic consequences in earlier prehistory by assuming coarse and extreme models of 'demic diffusion'.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Genetics, Archaeology and the Wider World


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.