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For about a decade, I’ve been an avid reader of the latest work on human population genetics. Following a rush of oddball (and sometimes downright irresponsible) amateurs and a few informed commentators, I’ve woven in a background in ancient history and comparative linguistics to compensate for my elementary-at-best knowledge of molecular genetics. Last year, I bucked the norms of my Arabic composition class on literature and politics, writing on the origins of the Semitic language family and the demographic nature of the Islamic conquests from a genetic perspective. Until quite recently, this was an exercise on the margins: in most cases, genetic researchers kept their speculation to the unfathomably distant past, and traditional historians steered clear altogether.
It isn’t hard to understand why social scientists of various shades have resisted the tide: comfortable in their particular methodologies and backed by decades of scholarly inertia, many cannot stand the idea of men in lab coats breaking from their traditional bailiwick and seizing the reins of academic history. It is one thing to sympathize; yet another to justify. Human population genetic science has sampled broadly enough, refined its models enough, and proven coherent enough to contribute critically to our understanding of history all the while seizing the reins of prehistory—confirming some narratives, denying others, and introducing entirely new paradigms to boot.
I am of course not speaking of the history of great men, Enlightenment ideas, or early modern revolutions. Biologists are perfectly content to leave these things to their traditional practitioners (though let us not forget that we are only sure about Thomas Jefferson’s slave descendants through DNA research) in the interpretive arts and sciences. The task at hand is big history—what historiographers and Francophones speak of as the longue durée—the pliable stuff of great interdisciplinary works à la Diamond.
If Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is the canonical work of interdisciplinary world history writ ecological, Australian archaeologist Peter Bellwood’s “First Migrants,” published in 2013, is the genre’s breakout in the biological. Following his subtitle, “Ancient Migration in Global Perspective,” Bellwood’s thesis is clear: most of human history is best understood as population history—measurable in potsherds, lexemes, and genes alike.
It is in weaving these strands together that Bellwood hits his stride, even if this columnist disagrees with his shoddy location of proto-Afroasiatic in the Levant and his identification of the Kurgan cultures of the Eurasian steppe with the Turkic and Yeniseian language families. Unlike other recent “big historians” attempting to engage with genetic research (see Peter Watson’s “The Great Divide”), Bellwood is squarely on the cutting edge—a matter that makes the difference between idle molecular speculation and effective genetic history.
This is to say, Bellwood is on board with a radical new insight that has swept the world of human population genetics in the last three or four years: “pots, not peoples,” is dead. Massive turnovers in language and material culture in prehistory and ancient history—turning Europe agricultural and Africa Bantu—have been overwhelmingly biological and total in their sweep. The contemporary population genetic (read: racial-phenotypic) landscape of the Old World continents is shockingly new—to put it simply, when Khufu and Khafre were laid to rest in their famous pyramids 4,500 years ago, most of Africa didn’t look “African.” Just a few thousand years older, brown-skinned, blue-eyed hunter-gatherers roamed Spain, speaking a language nobody today could conceivably recognize.
Bellwood, like the few historians who have engaged maturely with genetics, stops short on the margins of written history—an excusable matter considering the geographical and interdisciplinary scope of his work. But the success of “First Migrants” tenders a challenge to historians of later eras: no matter the home discipline of the author, genetics is now one of the bases he must cover—and in more than unsophisticated passing. Recent whole-genome findings have richly leavened our understanding of the last half millennium of New World population history. No contemporary “big historian” of colonial Latin America, the slave South, or French Canada should be forgiven for omitting the insights of population genetics, whether confirmatory or challenging.
Most importantly, the genetic revolution in history ought to serve as a great cathartic, purging the academy and popular imagination of seductive hobgoblins, served up as arguable history. Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People,” a 2009 work of ideological postmodernism that embraces tired circumstantial arguments for the origins of European Jews among the Turko-Mongolian Khazars of the steppe, is a case in point. Sand, an intellectual historian of French cinema, is clearly out of his depth when discussing the origins of a people—a measurable enterprise thanks to the tools of population genetics. He thus relies on straw men and well-worded sophistry to obfuscate the genetically undeniable: that by and large, Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of Judean men from the Middle East and their Western European convert wives.
This is not, I should caution, a rebuke of the Kuhnian skepticism that got historians of science so skeptical of their own subject in the first place. Population genetic historians work in a world of constructs—and no degree of molecular precision will ever amount to pure truth. When used properly, it’s certainly a step up, however, from interpretive methods alone.
Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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