Why Archaeologists, Historians and Geneticists Should Work Together – and How

Why Archaeologists, Historians and Geneticists Should Work Together – and How

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Why Archaeologists, Historians and Geneticists Should Work Together – and How

By Stefanie Samida and Jörg Feuchter

Medieval Worlds, No.4 (2016)

Abstract: In recent years, molecular genetics has opened up an entirely new approach to human history. DNA evidence is now being used not only in studies of early human evolution (molecular anthropology), but is increasingly helping to solve the puzzles of history. This emergent research field has become known as »genetic history«.

The paper gives an overview on this new field of research. The aim is both to discuss in what ways the ascendant discipline of genetic history is relevant, and to pinpoint both the potentials and the pitfalls of the field. At the same time, we would like to raise the profile of the field within the humanities and cultural studies. We hope that the opportunity for communication between representatives of different disciplines will contribute to loosening up the widespread monodisciplinary method of working and, in particular, bring together the relevant scientific and cultural streams of research.

Introduction: In recent years, the media have repeatedly seized on the findings of genetic research to make headlines such as the following: »Finding the Iceman’s 19 living relatives«; »A million Vikings still live among us: One in 33 men can claim direct descent from the Norse warriors«; »How Germanic are we?;« »Britain is more Germanic than it thinks«; and »We Europeans are Asians«. Articles such as these already attest to the increasing attention the field of “genetic history” is receiving in public discourse. They also clearly evoke a major fascination of this new discipline: the promise of a new link between history and modern identities, a connection between past and present established biologically, via the genes people have inherited from historical ancestors. Unlike other scientific methods applied to the study of history and archaeology (e.g. carbon dating or isotope analysis), genetics is immediately concerned with issues of identity, since the modern mind perceives DNA as a carrier of identity. Thus problems of the past are often conflated with the question of the ethnic identity of modern populations.