Link: The academic battles of ancient DNA

3 minute read

This week the talk of archaeology and human genetics is a long feature article in the New York Times Magazine about the academic struggles of ancient DNA: “Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?”

Of course the answer to the title question is, “Both”. Ancient DNA evidence has generated enormous advances in our understanding of past human societies, and the relationships of present-day peoples.

The author of the article, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, gives the broad context of the science for readers who haven’t been following advances closely. He also focuses on a recent series of papers looking at the population genetics and ancestry of people in Vanuatu. So there is the intersection of studying the ancestral bones of people who are not represented in industrialized DNA labs, the rivalry between competing labs who are publishing on other archaeological samples addressing the same “big questions” about the peopling of the Pacific, and the complex interactions between archaeologists and geneticists in their attempts to understand the past.

It is a long article with much complexity.

I want to quote a passage from the middle, which helps to explain why David Reich has become such a focus of attention and controversy in this field. It is the avowed establishment of a “factory” approach:

So in 2013, Reich, along with a veteran of Paabo’s lab and a longtime mathematician collaborator, retooled his shop at Harvard Medical School as one of the country’s first dedicated ancient-DNA labs. The idea, he writes in his book, “was to make ancient DNA industrial — to build an American-style genomics factory” that would liberate such fields as archaeology, history and anthropology from hitherto insoluble debates.
He was more successful than even he anticipated. By the end of 2010, only five ancient genomes had been sequenced in total, but in 2014, 38 were done in one year. Soon the number will be close to 2,000. Reich’s lab alone is responsible for at least half of the published output, which doesn’t include some 5,500 more bones in the process of being analyzed and 3,000 more in storage. “Ancient DNA and the genome revolution,” he declares in his book’s introductory overture, “can now answer a previously unresolvable question about the deep past: the question of what happened.

I have many thoughts about the current state of this field. I think it has gone too far in destroying bone samples that are irreplaceable, and it has done so in a way that is unsustaintable in scientific terms.

Using the language of industrial processes is appropriate. In ten years, the factory will be outmoded, the resource depleted, and scientists who remain genuinely interested in broadening participation in understanding ancient people will be picking up the pieces. Maybe there will be a new factory.

It will take me some time to write up those thoughts in a more concrete way.

In the meantime, the one thing that disturbs me the most about this article, which I have pointed out on Twitter, is the sheer number of scientists who were willing to give insight on this field, but who requested to remain anonymous.

There thus reigns, in the world of ancient DNA, an atmosphere of intense suspicion, anxiety and paranoia, among archaeologists and geneticists alike. In dozens of interviews with practitioners of both disciplines, almost everyone requested anonymity for fear of professional reprisal. Many archaeologists described a “smash and grab” culture in which hopeful co-authors source their bones by any means necessary. Among teams at work on any given excavation, it takes only a single colleague to deliver a bone to one of the industrial giants for the entire group to lose control of their findings. Museums, too, are being swept up by the perverse incentives: One of the geneticists told me stories about having brokered an agreement to sample a particular collection, only to arrive and discover that someone else showed up the previous day to claim the same bones under a false pretense. The weaker the institutions of the country, the harder it is for local researchers to have a fighting chance. Scientists in Turkey and Mexico told me that museum curators routinely had to explain that they had promised their native bone collections elsewhere. As one ancient-DNA researcher in Turkey put it to me, “Certain geneticists see the rest of world as the 19th-century colonialists saw Africa — as raw-material opportunities and nothing else.”

I want to be clear. This passage describes my experience of this field. I also personally know dozens of archaeologists and geneticists working with ancient DNA who share this experience.