Archaeology and Human Genetics: Lessons for Both

By Brown, Keri A.; Pluciennik, Mark | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Archaeology and Human Genetics: Lessons for Both

Brown, Keri A., Pluciennik, Mark, Antiquity


The introduction of new scientific techniques into archaeology has often been surrounded by polemics which go beyond disagreements over the validity of methodology (e.g. Renfrew 1973; Thomas 1990). Typically, humanities-based archaeologists may be perceived as Luddite in their anti-science rhetoric, while scientists may be accused of ignorance of cultural and interpretative process. Many of these responses relate to disciplinary boundary maintenance -- the protection of particular spheres of knowledge, status and authority. The recent relationship between archaeology and genetics is a case in point. We examine these issues in relation to current studies of human DNA and later prehistoric and historic archaeologies, rather than the other major focus of much early DNA work, the origins and dispersal of modern humans.

History and background

Genetics first impinged on most archaeologists in the early 1970s, with the work of geneticist Cavalli-Sforza and archaeologist Ammerman on the transition to farming in Europe (Ammerman & Cavalli-Sforza 1971; 1973; 1984). They suggested that the population spread of Neolithic farmers from southwest Asia should still be evident in modern gene frequencies and distributions. Subsequent research by Cavalli-Sforza and others (e.g. Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994; Sokal et al. 1991) expanded to cover many more areas, samples and genetic loci. Such work has also attempted to elucidate the histories of supposedly distinct populations such as `Celts' or `Indo-Europeans' in conjunction with allegedly linked characteristics including language, ethnicity, subsistence practices and material culture (e.g. Barbujani et al. 1994; Bodmer 1993; Cavalli-Sforza 1996; Moral et al. 1994; Renfrew 1992; Sokal et al. 1993).

Much of this work has been extensively criticized (e.g. Clark 1998; Fix 1996; McEachern 2000; Richards et al. 1996; Sims-Williams 1998a). The causes and directionality of theclines (gene frequency gradients) have been disputed. It now seems clear that Principal Component Analysis maps are palimpsests of gene flows (Renfrew 1998). In general, such modelling offers poor time resolution for events and processes understood in social and cultural terms. Because of the lack of stability of provenance of modern samples, a necessarily fuzzy picture is given. Most of the interpretations were concerned with processes of movement and mixture dating back many millennia. However, they tended to treat populations as stable in terms of linked genetic and cultural features, and the possible relationships of biological data to ethnic labels, artefacts and language have been poorly understood (Lasker & Crews 1996; Moore 1995; Pluciennik 1996a; Sims-Williams 1998b; Zvelebil 1995; 1998). Geneticists often used some sort of `tree' model as though they were dealing with discrete populations and fixed characteristics. Diagrams of difference between genetic samples were often misunderstood as representing `real' phylogenies (cf. Sykes 1999: 132). Elucidating the scale and nature of locally variable biological interactions may require investigation of ancient DNA in conjunction (where available) with historical, textual and archaeological (including bone isotope) evidence.

Many interpretations based on genetic data have thus been at odds with understandings of historical processes by many archaeologists. At present, using contemporary data we are able to model past genetic histories within certain parameters, but these are inevitably constrained by inherent imprecision in detailing the scale, nature and context of the processes of gene flow, and dating the origins of genotypes. Yet this interface between the biological and cultural in specific communities and conditions at particular times is precisely what may be of prime interest. However, such work has also pointed to areas of genetic anomaly or complexity, and can also offer another method of approaching time-depths in distinct genetic entities (lineages) or populations. …

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 ...
Default project is now your active project.
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

Archaeology and Human Genetics: Lessons for Both


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
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.