A new paper on the conflict between ancient DNA and archaeology has gained some attention. Those papers occurs with a regular frequency, and at the heart of them the claims are always the same. The geneticists don’t know enough cultural history to handle these studies, but the main problem is one of communication, archaeologists and geneticists don’t understand one another. While this may be partly true, it is not the whole, or even the main objective I think. From my 25 years in the field, I have come to the conclusion that two other forces are at play here.
First, archaeogenetic studies are expensive, and genetics can only answer a specific set of questions. The great thing about it is that most of those questions are once we could not answer previously, but never the less, genetics can only help with things that has to do with relatedness, geno-phenotypes, invasive and genetic diseases, and whatever is found in the genome. The cost and the reality sometimes makes it impossible to approach questions that are popular at the time. But more important, most important: We, who are doing the archaeogenetic studies, have research interests of our own. We may not at all be interested in questions that mainstream archaeology is, we may be interested in questions that were popular a decade or two ago, or in questions that no one has thought about yet, or in questions that relates to popular or unpopular issues. That is not communication problems, that is a normal state where different researchers are interested in different things. And for the conflict, I only see traces of it these days, a decade ago perhaps, but most of the archaeologists and geneticists I’m working with now are mainly interested in prehistory. What remains is often (but not always) interesting discussions where we try to figure out why different types of data initially seems to point in different directions, and in most of the cases this leads to new insights about prehistory.
Ancient DNA study in the making