The coming genetic invasion of history, and the rage to come

About ten years ago I reviewed Bryan Sykes’ book Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. It was what it was, a product of the Y/mtDNA era. Therefore, there were a fair amount of conclusions which in hindsight turn out to be wrong. Sykes, and other genetic historians, such as Stephen Oppenheimer, have annoyed historians for years with their genetic imperialism. More frequently, genetic research has been an accent or inflection on historical work. Peter Heather has integrated some genetic results in his earlier books, though you can ignore those and still obtain the general conclusions.

The recent work on near antiquity is a hint that that is going to be blown apart. Ancient DNA in the historical period has been a slow simmer for a while now. The reason is simple: ancient DNA returns more on the investment for prehistory, where there aren’t historical documents. Until recently ancient DNA techniques were expensive in a variety of ways. The industrial process described in Who We Are and How We Got There is going to change that.

In the near future, a large number of projects are going to surface which test hypotheses and conjectures offered by historians.

You would think that testing hypotheses, generally with demographic predictions, would be something that historians would welcome. The problem is that the test will mean some scholars are going to turn out to be wrong. People who spent decades building up a particular model or understanding of the past are going to have that torn away from them.

The normal human reaction is to get defensive. But the problem is that many historians are not well trained in genetic methods. In fact, many geneticists are not well trained in the abstruse statistical methods developed by scholars in ancient DNA.

We’ve seen some of the same from archaeologists. But archaeologists had models which were, to be frank, more speculative than those historians cling to. Even if a particular historical model may be wrong, it is likely there are reasonable grounds to have held onto to that position. If ancient DNA falsifies it the reaction will be even more strident I suspect.

Of course, geneticists need the help of historians. So when the bad feelings clear I think the synthesis will get us to a better understanding of the past.

11 thoughts on “The coming genetic invasion of history, and the rage to come

  1. Or they might just ignore the hard-sci data completely, forever. I for one certainly don’t think they’re incapable of it.

  2. I’m curious as to what Gender Studies will make of these results.

    One speculative archaeologist whose findings have been verified (dramatically) is Mariya Gimbutas. She was right about the Kurgan peoples being Indo-European, and about their takeover of Europe. This means we cannot (yet) rule out the feminist pre-historians of the late 1970s following Gimbutas directly and indirectly: to start with, the pseudonymous “Merlin Stone”, and Riane Eisler.

    These authors shared one fatal flaw: they took sides. They thought that European paganism, being gynocentric or “gylanic”, was superior to the Semitic androcracy – meaning, Christianity – and to the R1b/R1a invaders, who are white people, Iranians, and Brahmins. “Stone” in particular inspired Marion Zimmer Bradley, I believe.

    Gender Studies has been cheering some of these results but it will be interesting to see how they react to the nuance. Rather than pagans-versus-Christians or Europeans-versus-Kurgans; we now have a matrix of hunter/gatherers, farmers, and battle-axe Kurgans cris/crossing each other. Were the farmers less patriarchal and androcratic than the Kurgans… or were they more? That crash in the Y chromosome seems a strong indicator of polygyny and androcracy – some lineages “won”. Whom do we blame?

  3. Scientific feuds like the Alvarez / Keller dustup (still going strong four decades on) do exist but I haven’t detected such in recent studies of Völkerwanderung.

    The historians of Late Antiquity (my field) tend to squabble over religious texts and over what on Earth (or outside Earth) caused the great freeze 536-550 CE. The former deals with written documents and the latter with geology. I don’t think genetics has much input into these questions.

    Perhaps in the Balkans where they still argue over “who’s a Slav”, “who’s an Albanian” these questions may be more salient.

  4. IMO, the views of this archaeologist on ancient people of Britain have sort of been debunked by ancient DNA. I emailed him about it. He responded kindly but didn’t retract from his views or edit the outdated claims in his article.
    “The story of early Britain has traditionally been told in terms of waves of invaders displacing or annihilating their predecessors. Archaeology suggests that this picture is fundamentally wrong. ”

    Ancient DNA shows two ‘invasions’ in pre-historic Britain which almost completely ‘annihilated’ their predecessors (first in circa 4000 BC, second in circa 2000 BC). So, right there he is wrong but he seems too stubborn to admit it.

  5. “genetics is probably going to resolve whether ‘old europe’ was matrilineal/matrifocal.”

    True. We already have patrilocal data from the steppe era.

    It could also be that there is a transition at some point, perhaps pre-IE in some places. In anthropology, societies that are currently matrifocal are associated with a history of hoe farming or hunting and gathering, while those that are patrifocal as associated with a history of herding or plough farming. Ancient DNA may be able to resolve the entire hypothesis and may identify transition points. Archaeology already gives us strong priors who prehistoric cultures on this point.

    Another hypothesis that may eventually be tested is the degree to which the Harappan society involved genetically distinct castes.

    Lots of hypotheses related to the Jewish diaspora and the Gypsy migration from South Asia are already being resolved genetically.

    The genetic legacy of the Crusades and, more generally, the genetics of the Middle East over the last twenty-five hundred years or so, should be clarified. It would also be interesting to know how much of the Aegean source Philistine community survives in modern population genetics of the Levant. Similarly, it would be interesting to see if there is evidence in ancient DNA of a Hebrew superstrate and if so, how big a percentage of the total population it was and how much it admixed with local populations.

    I suspect that the population genetic history of Hungary in the last 1500 years or so is pretty complex and that ancient DNA can shed a lot of light upon it. North Asia (including Siberia’s) population history in that time period is also probably rather complicated.

    In the New World, one of the big issues should be establishing continuity or lack of it, between various pre-Columbian civilizations (Mayan, Inca, Aztec, Anasazi, Mississippian, Amazonian, etc.), and verifying or ruling out hints of pre-Columbian incursions (that seemingly had little lasting impact) from Asia and Oceania, although this should require pretty high coverage samples because almost all of them have significant deep common ancestry. Patrilineal v. matrilineal issues in Native American cultures also could ruffle feathers or affirm paradigms.

    I am still inclined, however, to think that resolving questions of “legendary history” are still going to be more interesting than those that are well attested historically.

    For example, pre-IE ancient DNA from Bronze Age and early Iron Age Southern Europe could provide a lot of linguistic insight into attested pre-IE languages in the region and their relationships to each other that aren’t well resolved.

    Ancient DNA is likely to shed a lot of light on the history of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family (which I strongly suspect is much younger than conventional linguistic estimates suggest) and on the Tocharian branch of the IE languages. Still, the inconclusive results for the Basque and surprisingly non-uniform results for the Bell Beaker people suggest that genetics alone won’t provide easy answers and that it will take truly interdisciplinary research to get reliable conclusions.

    The existence or absence of genetic links between Elamites and either IVC or the Dravidians could be elucidated.

    Y/mtDNA results have added both confusion and clarity to the relationships of the Afro-Asiatic languages that autosomal DNA and ancient DNA could clarify. Pre-Neolithic ancient DNA, in particular, could clarify the timing of the spread of this language family.

    Pre-Bantu ancient DNA from Africa could be very illuminating.

    There just has to be Denisovan ancient DNA somewhere in Southern Asia, ideally in connection with skeletal remains that would allow us to put a face on them and perhaps link them to transitional early hominin remains from China.

    Beyond the discoveries on the genetics front with be a probably generation or two long process of integrating those results into the academic consensus.

  6. All the above in the comemnts thread really do seem more prehistorical than historical and largely the domain of anthropology and archaeology again.

    Specifically for questions of neolithic gender egalitarianism, within anthropology/archaeology, this seems largely rejected by quantitative and rigorous practitioners in the fields, as essentially absent in the record of actually encountered neolithic societies and without basis in solid evidence for the European neolithic (where the evidence boils down not more than to speculation and conjecture on a few ceramic figurines, considered in isolation without reference to documented human cultural diversity).

    I’m having a hard time thinking of actual historical theses which will be decisively rejected or proven? Historical theses on volumes of population movements?

  7. Most will be about ethnic formations, how much of a genetic impact a particular conquest, colonisation or even social and political measure had. There is no clear borderline between prehistory and history on those issues, because with the available historical data you can’t determine how much of an impact Varangians had on the Russian people or Walloon and French settlers in Eastern German provinces.
    A lot of it is about ideas about “the social construct ethnicity”, like is there a truth to the common descent of a people, like it was said in the myth, or not. And if, how far goes it back and which other influences are present.
    For example some medieval historians which truly hate ancient DNA and published on “ethnicity as a construct” for decades. Some even wanted to shun colleagues which use the newly available data. Thats really bad or even fake science: Making up ridiculous hypothesis primarily for ideological reasons and claiming that this joke is the only truth, but when the time comes to prove it right or wrong with hard facts, just reject the method with ideological “arguments” and attack those which are ready to use it.
    The aversion is the greatest among those socialised in the time between 1960-1980 in my opinion. Most of the younger ones, even if they are from the political left as well, would hardly argue against using scientific methods in such an ignorant way. But like you said, like the ones I have in mind, a lot of them wrote dozens of books and articles claiming the same wrong things over and over again. Now its payday and they know or at least are afraid that all of THEIR CONSTRUCTS will collapse under the weight of the new evidence.

  8. @ohwilleke

    I’d be frankly surprised if there was a distinct ‘Hebrew superstrate’ in the Iron Age southern Levant. The LB–Iron transition in Canaan shows a change in settlement patterns, but the material culture is fundamentally the same (except poorer). It’s overwhelmingly likely that the proto-Israelites of the highland were descended from local populations—and even if the biblical narrative were to be trusted, it’s unlikely that Northwest Semites in Transjordan or Lower Egypt were all that genetically different from their cousins in the city-states of Late Bronze Canaan.

    Plus, I wouldn’t be surprised if other phase changes in Levantine material culture (EB–MB transition, MB–LB transition) were associated with bigger genetic changes than the 13th-12th century collapse (the Sea Peoples might be another story, though in the case of the Philistines, most assimilation would’ve been of autochthonous Canaanites into the new culture, rather than vice-versa). Several hints suggest that some time during the Bronze Age, the Levant was shifted northward generically (whether by Hittites, Hurrians/Mitanni, or Amorites)—my bet is that this happened before ‘1177’, but I could be wrong.

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