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A composite window into human history

DNA testing alone of ancient human remains can’t resolve questions about past societies.

Better integration of ancient DNA studies with archaeology promises deeper insights.

DNA testing alone of ancient human remains can’t resolve questions about past societies.

It’s time for geneticists and archaeologists to collaborate more fully in the face of ever greater advancements in ancient DNA research, according to SMU archaeologist David J. Meltzer and his colleagues in a recent article in the scientific journal Science.

The authors write in “A composite window into human history” that over the past decade, DNA testing of ancient human remains has become a valuable tool for studying and understanding past human population histories.

Most notably, for example, is how sequencing of ancient genomes resolved the dispute over our species’ evolutionary relationship with Neanderthals, the authors point out.

Even so, the authors caution that collaboration with archaeologists is key for scientific accuracy as well as navigating ethical implications.

Archaeologists know from the study of artifacts that it isn’t always the case that people who share material culture traits were likewise part of the same biological population.

“One can have similar traits without relatedness, and relatedness without similarity in traits,” say the authors in the article.

At the same time, where there is biological relatedness, cultural relatedness can’t be assumed, nor can language groups indicate that biological populations, material assemblages or even social units are related.

“Geneticists are often keen to use ancient DNA to understand the causes and mechanisms of demographic and cultural change,” the authors write. “But archaeologists long ago abandoned the idea that migrations or encounters between populations are a necessary or sufficient explanation of cultural change.”

The authors make the point that understanding population movements requires broad investigation of many factors, including environmental and social contexts, timing and logistics, how new resources and landscapes were managed, and the transfer of cultural knowledge.

“Hence, it requires evidence for archaeology, paleoecology and other fields to supplement and complement ancient DNA data,” the authors write. “And that entails effective collaboration, one that goes beyond archaeologists serving as passive sample providers.”

Meltzer is Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory in the SMU Department of Anthropology in Dedman College. As a scientist who studies how people first came to inhabit North America, Meltzer in 2009 was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in recognition for his achievements in original scientific research. In 2013 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Co-authors on the perspective piece with Meltzer were Niels N. Johannsen, Aarhus University, Denmark; Greger Larson, University of Oxford; and Marc Vader Linden, University College London.

By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs