The revolution which came to archaeology without archaeologists?

The recent letter to Nature, Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, has elicited some response from those outside of genetics. The first author of the paper linked to these two, Who are you calling Mycenaean? and On genetics and the Aegean Bronze Age.

One of the common elements to both reactions was that the paper’s definition, or reification, of Mycenaean and Minoan constructs was naive. From one of the posts:

In a press interview following the publication of the study, one of the main authors claimed that ‘there is no doubt that our findings reflect historical events in the Greek lands’: ‘the picture of historical continuity is crystal clear, as is very clear the fact that through the centuries Greeks evolved receiving genetic influences from other populations.’ The category of ‘Greekness’ here appears more or less given and stable, despite the ‘influences’, from the Early Bronze Age to the present. It sounds like a version of the 19th-century national narrative of the power of eternal Hellenism to absorb external influences.

Context is important here. The last ten years have seen a massive updating of our assumptions about the nature of demographic change in the pre-modern world. Geneticists using ancient DNA have been central to this process. They’ve overturned a lot of archaeological orthodoxies.

One of the major assumptions seemingly at the heart of the two critical posts is that modern ideas of nationhood were a recent construction. The stylized assertion is that modern nationalism begins with the French Revolution. To me this is like the assertion that the troubadours invented romantic love during the High Middle Ages. While it is true that the troubadours popularized a particular form of romantic love, the core emotional impulses are primal, and didn’t need “inventing.” Similarly, ideas of nationality are clearly primal, because they derive from the tribal structures of prehistoric humanity. Tribes are an evoked part of human culture. That is, given similar cognitive hardware, the same software seems to get installed for the same tasks (group cohesion and inter-group competition).

Ironically, the period between the “rise of civilization” and the modern era may have been one defined by the regression of nationalistic thinking, because tribalism had to be suppressed with the rise of multiethnic agricultural states. Only with early modern information technology, and the spread of a literate middle class culture united by common mores and touchstones, could primal tribalism be transformed into modern nationalism (to this way of thinking it is not a coincidence that German nationalism with the Lutheran Reformation was supercharged by the arrival of the printing press).

Peter Heather in Empires and Barbarians and Azar Gat in Nations outline the revisionist views I’m alluding to in regards to the ancient origins of nationalism. But from a perspective of a geneticist the very high differentiation between nearby groups that persist for hundreds and even thousands of years is indicative of high levels of cultural distinction and consciousness (because only small amounts of gene flow between groups is enough to eliminate differences very rapidly). Genetics can’t maintain these sorts of differences, only strong cultural ideologies can.

Finally, quoting from the same post:

First, there’s not much new here. I mean, the data are new, but the conclusions are largely consistent with the archaeological consensus: there’s no big genetic difference between “Minoans” (Late Bronze Age Cretans) and “Mycenaeans” (Late Bronze Age inhabitants of the Greek mainland), and both are pretty close genetically to Late Bronze Age southwestern Anatolians….

The archaeological consensus was correct here to a great extent. But in other areas it has not been right of late. That’s why it is not so ho-hum. In The Beaker Phenomenon And The Genomic Transformation Of Northwest Europe the authors show that:

1) the spread of Beaker culture from Southwest Europe to Central Europe was one of cultural transmission (archaeologists would not be surprised).

2) the spread of Beaker culture to England from Central Europe was one of demographic replacement on the order of 90% over a few hundred years (archaeologists would be surprised).

It’s easy for archaeologists to be surprised that geneticists are presenting ideas that they “refuted” in the 1960s. But it turns out that the predictions on a demographic scale are easily refuted in many places and times by genetics. The issue isn’t whether it’s pots or peoples, but what the mix of pots and people are. This research is part of a broad program of nailing down the values in these parameters, as opposed to simply going along with archaeological orthodoxy.

Addendum: The title is somewhat unfair now that I think about it. Many archaeologists have been instrumental in the revolution triggered by ancient DNA. But, the vast majority of archaeologist and historians who are outside of these collaborations, I’m not so sure they are aware of the recent developments.

2 thoughts on “The revolution which came to archaeology without archaeologists?

  1. What I gather from these two archeologists is that they have a lot of feelings. It’s just so “disturbing” for them to have to be subjected to such unsophisticated and jarringly passé modes of knowledge production. Although I think the concern is more a violation of social science orthodoxy than archeological orthodoxy, the former not having fully subsumed the latter.

    Their responses have a little bit of the flavor of the reaction to James Damore’s memo, their points being smug moralist fallacies more than anything else. In Who are you calling Mycenaean? I see “neo-fascist fantasy” and “19th-century national narrative”. Then in the comments you get “It is indeed disturbing that an article in the journal Nature has provided support for the propaganda of a racist nationalistic political party” from a guy who goes on to make insinuations about “certain authors” and express his concern about journalists being “fed fake-science”.

  2. Go look up Napoleon Chagnon if you’re up for seeing the infestation of Post-Modernism and Feral Leftism in archaelogy with other “Social Sciences.”

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