When Ancient DNA Gets Politicized

What responsibility do archaeologists have when their research about prehistoric finds is appropriated to make 21st-century arguments about ethnicity?

Cemetary Excavation
Excavation of the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon. Melissa Aja / Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

With a string of three tweets, ten ancient skeletons became geopolitical pawns.

Last weekend, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, or whoever in his administration operates his Twitter account, tweeted about a new study that had been published in the journal Science Advances and covered widely in the media, including in Smithsonian.

The study analyzed DNA from ten individuals who had been buried at Ashkelon, a coastal city in Israel, between the Bronze Age and Iron Age. The results suggested that the appearance of new genetic signatures in four of the individuals coincided with changes in the archaeological record that have been associated with the arrival of the Philistines more than 3,000 years ago. These genetic traits resembled those of ancient people who lived in what is now Greece, Italy and Spain. The authors asserted that these findings supported the idea that the Philistines, a group of people made infamous in the Hebrew Bible as the enemies of the Israelites, originally migrated to the Levant from somewhere in southern Europe, but quickly mixed with local populations.

Commenting on the study, Netanyahu wrote: “There’s no connection between the ancient Philistines & the modern Palestinians, whose ancestors came from the Arabian Peninsula to the Land of Israel thousands of years later. The Palestinians’ connection to the Land of Israel is nothing compared to the 4,000 year connection that the Jewish people have with the land.”

The logic here for those who had read the study was confusing. The new research had nothing to say about the genetic history of Jews or Palestinians or the connection those modern populations have to the land. (Though the word "Palestinian" comes from "Philistine," Palestinians are not thought of as the descendants of Philistines; it appears that Netanyahu was using this unrelated point to launch into his argument.)

“To me it seemed like it just provided another opportunity—even if it's just tangential—to take a swipe at Palestinians,” says Michael Press, an independent scholar who studies the presentation of archaeology in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. “It's hard to blame the authors much here since Netanyahu's use of the study really was a non-sequitur.” (The authors of the study did not wish to comment but are preparing a formal response.)

Despite evidence that Jews and Palestinians are genetically closely related, Press and others were also torn about even addressing such inaccuracies in Netanyahu’s comments. Tom Booth, a researcher in the ancient genomics laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute in London, worried that picking apart what the prime minister got wrong about the study would suggest that, in an alternate reality, where his interpretation was scientifically sound, Netanyahu would be justified in using such a study to support his claims about Palestinian rights. “You just need to condemn any attempt to use a study on the past in this way,” Booth says. “The way our ancestors were 4,000 years ago does not really bear on ideas of nation or identity, or it shouldn't in modern nation states.”

This incident has dredged up tensions that have been lurking in archaeology ever since ancient DNA studies started gaining wide attention a decade ago. Advances in technology have made it possible to extract and analyze DNA from ancient bones, teeth, and other sources, and the resulting studies have made discoveries that might otherwise be invisible in the archaeological record: that anatomically modern humans mated with Neanderthals; that ancient populations in Africa moved and mixed more than previously thought; that the ancestors of the first people to set foot in North America may have taken a 10,000-year pause in their migration route in the now-submerged landmass between Siberia and Alaska. “Without knowing whether populations are staying the same or changing, we ended up potentially misunderstanding what's happening in the archaeological record,” Booth says.

If anything, the bevy of new findings should have only complicated our understanding of population history and destabilized old notions of discrete racial and ethnic groups. Showing how much diversity and movement took place in the past should help undermine concepts of racial and ethnic purity that have historically been used to discriminate against and oppress certain modern populations. “There’s no doubt that modern genetic studies could actually contribute very positively to the deconstruction of old myths,” says David Wengrow, a professor of comparative archaeology at University College London. “The question is, why does the opposite seem to be happening?”

For the last few years, archaeologists and geneticists have witnessed ancient DNA findings get misinterpreted, sometimes as a result of oversimplification, other times in the service of more pernicious arguments about race and ethnicity. Earlier this year, Booth and his colleagues published a study that showed that Britain’s first farmers had ancestry from the Aegean region and descended from people who migrated slowly, over 2,000 years, across Western Europe. He watched as tabloids turned the story into something closer to “Turks built Stonehenge.” After a 2017 study in Nature showed similarities in the DNA of modern Greeks and ancient people buried in Mycenaean and Minoan settlements, a far-right party of Greek ultranationalists proclaimed that “the 4000-year racial continuity of the Greeks has been proved.”

“There are loads and loads of ancient DNA studies that go in a similar way,” says Susanne Hakenbeck, a senior archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. In a paper published just this week in the journal World Archaeology, Hakenbeck describes how commenters on the white supremacist forum Stormfront often use genetic studies in their arguments about racial superiority. They particularly latched onto two studies from 2015 which claimed to show, through ancient DNA analysis, evidence that predatory bands of young men from the Yamnaya culture of the Eurasian steppe swept down into Western Europe and replaced local populations, bringing Indo-European languages with them. In that grand narrative presented by the authors of these studies, white supremacists imagined an origin myth for the Aryan race. “I found that the more extreme storytelling"—whether in the original framing of the research or in the media—"feeds into these far-right narratives especially when it’s anything to do with European population studies,” Hakenbeck says.

Hakenbeck and other archaeologists believe geneticists have (unwittingly or not) helped fuel these race-obsessed arguments by reviving old ideas about cultural invasions and migrations that many archaeologists abandoned in the 1960s. Early practitioners of archaeology presented the course of human history as “racialized billiard balls crashing into each other,” Wengrow says. They tended to think of different cultures as clearly bounded entities, and if they saw change happening in the types of ceramics or other artifacts being used an archaeological site, they thought it must mean they were looking at evidence of an invasion. Younger generations of archaeologists have tended to favor explanations involving local invention and the spread of ideas. To them, narratives like the Yamnaya invasion feel like a throwback. (Writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus outlined these tensions at length in an article on ancient DNA for the New York Times Magazine earlier this year.)

“What we’re seeing with ancient DNA studies is a return to early 20th-century thinking—that [geneticists] can get a few samples from a few skeletons, call them by a [cultural] name, usually from a historical source, and say these skeletons are these people, and then we talk about their replacement,” says Rachel Pope, a senior archaeologist at the University of Liverpool. “We are fitting what is actually quite an exciting new science into an antiquated understanding of social mechanisms and how they change. It’s very depressing, and it’s very dangerous.”

Outside of the academy, archaeologists and geneticists also battle misconceptions about what we can really learn from DNA in general. While race and ethnicity are meaningful social concepts, geneticists have dismantled any lingering notions that race and ethnicity are biologically meaningful categories. Yet, the myth that DNA can tell us something definitive about our cultural or ethnic identity persists, which is perhaps fueled by the recent rising interest in personal DNA kits. “I think commercial ancestry tests have a lot to answer for,” Hakenbeck says. One Ancestry ad, typical of its marketing messaging, shows a “customer” convinced he was of German heritage shedding his lederhosen for a kilt when the company’s DNA test showed his ancestors were from Scotland. If ancient DNA researchers perpetuate the idea that fixed ethnic identities, rooted in genetics rather than culture, existed in the prehistoric past, they perpetuate the idea that we have static ethnic identities, rooted in genetics, today.

The exploitation of ancient DNA is perhaps just the latest iteration of a long-standing problem in the wider discipline: the wielding of archaeological data for political purposes. An Israeli excavation in the City of David, for instance, has been a flashpoint in the conflict over sovereignty in East Jerusalem over the last decade; Palestinians living in the neighborhood of Silwan have claimed that the encroaching excavations underneath and around their homes have undermined their presence (in some cases quite literally).

“It is important to note that this is not something that is at all unique to ancient DNA but common to all disciplines of the human past, and has been for a long time,” says Pontus Skoglund, who leads the ancient genomics laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute. There’s also a feeling among some genetics researchers that no matter how they interpret their finds in their conclusions, bad-faith actors will always be waiting to twist the data for their own arguments. Booth adds: “I feel like, there's an extent to which no matter what we do, because this kind of evidence is of such importance to ethnic nationalists with those kinds of views, they're going to co-opt it and manipulate it to suit their agenda no matter what it actually says.”

Hakenbeck says the case of the study on DNA from Ashkelon is a good example of how things could go wrong even when the work itself is quite measured and nuanced. The authors of the paper did emphasize in media interviews that ethnicity and genetics were not the same thing, and that their data reflected a complicated world.

Still, many archaeologists believe genetics researchers need to be more careful about the language they use (especially when it comes to cultural labels) and more proactive in controlling the discourse around their findings, or at least prepared to confront even tangential misrepresentations of their work. They also recognize that, moving forward, they need to work together with geneticists to come up with solutions that lead to better interpretations and better presentations of ancient DNA work. “It’s gotten to the point where we’ve realized we’ve got to sit younger generation archaeologists and younger generation paleogeneticists in a room and lock the doors essentially until we understand each other," Pope says.

“It’s not good enough just to say, ‘we’ve done some science, here’s an interesting story,’” adds Hakenbeck. “We can’t pretend that we’re putting our research out into some kind of neutral space.”

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