History might, as historian Arnold Toynbee allegedly said, be one damned thing after another, but historians and archaeologists spend a lot of their time trying to put those things into the right order. Assistance from science over the decades has been transformative, but not without difficulty: it took years for some archaeologists to be won over by radiocarbon dating.
Now, historians and archaeologists are grappling with a new scientific technique. The genetic study of ancient DNA is exploding, and the findings are posing several problems. One is a need for geneticists, archaeologists, historians and anthropologists to understand exactly how their skills and insights complement each other’s. It is clear, for example, that although genetics has useful things to say about the sweep of population history, the more conventional disciplines provide essential context.
Another problem is fear that simplistic takes on ancient DNA will mirror damaging uses of the idea of ‘culture history’. Culture history views the discovery of old artefacts as a proxy for the movement of the people who made them. According to this idea, a particular floral design on a pot that spread from south to north over a few centuries, for example, would indicate that the specific group of people that painted it was on the move — and carried the design with it.