Divided by DNA: The uneasy relationship between archaeology and ancient genomics

Genetics are having a disruptive influence on humans complex past. For example:

Thirty kilometres north of Stonehenge, stands a less-famous group of Neolithic stones. Established around 3600 BC by early farming communities, the West Kennet long barrow is an earthen mound with five chambers, adorned with giant stone slabs. At first, it served as a tomb for some three dozen men, women and children. But people continued to visit for more than 1,000 years, filling the chambers with relics such as pottery and beads that have been interpreted as tributes to ancestors or gods.

The artefacts offer a view of those visitors and their relationship with the wider world. Changes in pottery styles there sometimes echoed distant trends in continental Europe, such as the appearance of bell-shaped beakers — a connection that signals the arrival of new ideas and people in Britain. But many archaeologists think these material shifts meshed into a generally stable culture that continued to follow its traditions for centuries.

But last year, reports started circulating that seemed to challenge this picture of stability. A study1 analysing genome-wide data from 170 ancient Europeans, including 100 associated with Bell Beaker-style artefacts, suggested that the people who had built the barrow and buried their dead there had all but vanished by 2000 BC. The genetic ancestry of Neolithic Britons, according to the study, was almost entirely displaced. Yet somehow the new arrivals carried on with many of the Britons’ traditions. “That didn’t fit for me,” says Carlin, who has been struggling to reconcile his research with the DNA findings.

 

So can genetic studies overturn work done by dozens of researchers over decades? Is the promise of ancient DNA too good to be true, or a whole new window into our ancestors?

Read about the ongoing struggle here.

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