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The Deep History of Peoples – Women as well as Men


The 26 August Science magazine is on fire.

A definitive study shows the Wuhan market as the center of the first COVID-19 cases of the pandemic, refuting the lab leak hypothesis. That’s important, but this post is not about that, not least because I don’t want to get caught in that poisonous argument.

No, I want to talk about the cover stories.

This image inspired by Bronze Age art depicts people of diverse cultures spreading their genes between West Asia and Southeast Europe. From left to right: Mycenaean, Minoan, Hittite, Armenian, and Urartian. A total of 1317 ancient genomes spanning 10,000 years were analyzed to reveal the manifold connections between these regions that are invisible in modern DNA.

Three big Research Articles, with dozens of authors across the geographical area covered. A news story, and a Perspective. News stories and Perspectives are summaries for the general public and scientists who are not specialists in the field.

The scope of the Research Articles is amazing: geographically from Croatia to the Caucasus and Iran, and temporally over 10,000 years. The basis of the work is DNA genome analysis from 1317 individuals. Through that genome analysis, the authors draw conclusions about population movement in that area over that time period. The time period comes up to less than a thousand years ago, so some of the results can be compared with written work from authors like Herodotus.

The conclusions cannot be easily summarized. People moved around a lot and had sex with each other. Some results are consistent with the written work. Other claims, like that “Aryans” from this area had light hair and blue eyes, are shown to be false. To the extent it could be determined, most of the people studied had brown eyes and brown to black hair.

The “Aryan” story has had the most pernicious results of many written about the origin of the Indo-European languages and how they relate to people today. Language and genes have a loose relationship: People can learn other languages, but their genes are fixed. When people are looked at as a collective, those genes can move across space. The fact that most European languages belong to this group, along with others along an arc towards India, has intrigued many, particularly Europeans.

DNA analysis now provides another basis beyond comparing phonemes and projecting back to earlier languages. In many cases, it agrees with language studies, but it can also show the genetic contributions of, in this case, the Yamnaya people from the steppe, who contributed little to the Indo-European languages.

The conclusions of the papers are not simple and not easily collapsed to newspaper headlines. A long summary paragraph in the Perspective with much more of the conclusions ends with this sentence.

They highlight the variable patterns of ancient Greek colonization, discover that Anatolian migrants transformed the demographic composition of Imperial Rome, and show that ancient DNA can identify the expansion of Slavic and Turkic speakers into Eastern Europe and Anatolia in the medieval period (∼500 to 1100 CE).

The news story and Perspective summarize the findings and are not paywalled, I think. Science’s Perspectives provide context and, sometimes, commentary on Research Articles from scholars not involved in the authorship of those articles. The authors of this Perspective are at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After that long summary paragraph, the Perspective becomes a commentary of a type rarely seen.

The UNC authors criticize the framing of the three Research Articles. They point out that all results, even DNA sequences, are interpreted through a narrative frame. The frame in the articles is Eurocentric. The analysis, based on Y chromosomes for good technical reasons, privileges patrilineal descent without discussions “of XX humans at all.”

This emphasis on Y chromosome networks inadvertently projects gender stereotypes into the past, perpetuating an androcentric narrative of dominance and competition that equates chromosomes to gender and gender to behavior. Conversely, approaches that explore maternal markers and sex-neutral kinship coefficients have recently been used, showing that alternate methods that overcome sex biases are possible.

All too often, feminist analysis and criticism is shunned by editors of professional journals. Excuses during review include that it doesn’t fit their mission, or it needs to be more specific (revision followed by a request to generalize further), or it doesn’t prove its point far beyond the standards applied to other papers. Feminist analysis a new way of looking at the world, and some editors can’t grasp the challenge to their viewpoints. Congratulations to the editors at Science for being open to this way of thinking.

As the Perspective emphasizes, the three Research Articles are an immense step forward in understanding human history. Narrative frames are essential to developing the questions to be asked and the interpretations of the answers. No discipline can eliminate framing, so it’s better to be aware of it.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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