The Role of Ancient DNA Research in Archaeology


In this paper I briefly introduce work on ancient-DNA (aDNA) and give some examples of the impact this work has had on responses to questions in archaeology. Next, I spell out David Reich’s reasons for his optimism about the contribution aDNA research makes to archaeology. I then use Robert Chapman and Alison Wylie’s framework to offer an alternative to Reich’s view of relations between aDNA research and archaeology. Finally, I develop Steven Mithen’s point about the different questions archaeologists and geneticists ask, arguing that different disciplinary perspectives color researchers’ perceptions of “the most important questions” or the “central topics” in a field. I conclude that evidence from aDNA research cannot solve archaeological disputes without closer, mutually respectful collaboration between aDNA researchers and archaeologists. Ancient DNA data, like radiocarbon data, is not a silver bullet for problems in archaeology.

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  1. 1.

    There is now a Wikipedia entry entitled “Archaeogenetics”. See Accessed 2 June 2019.

  2. 2.

    FoxP2 is also present in birds (see Bolhuis and Everaert 2013 for contributions to this area of research).

  3. 3.

    Reich does not have this skepticism about contemporary work on the genetic basis of human behavioral traits, citing Genome Wide Association Studies on human behavioral traits as exemplary work in genetics (see e.g. Reich 2018, p. 256). This position is not uniformly shared by his colleagues in human population genetics (see e.g. Martin et al. 2017).

  4. 4.

    Contamination of a sample by human DNA is not the only problem; bacterial DNA could contaminate a sample and greatly affect the interpretation of the sequence extracted.

  5. 5.

    In typical cases men carry an X and a Y chromosome while women carry two X chromosomes.

  6. 6.

    This work draws on aDNA work on domestication. Zeder et al. (2006) provide a review of some of this work in both plants and animals.

  7. 7.

    The Y chromosome work reveals many ancient humans in a particular time period with the same male parent. This lends support to the idea that powerful individual men ruled in the relevant time period.

  8. 8.

    Reich’s arguments are not in defense of the claim that aDNA research is revolutionary in and of itself, rather, he defends the claim that aDNA research makes a revolutionary contribution to archaeology. Assessing the status of contributions made by aDNA research to population genetics, for example, requires an independent line of argument.

  9. 9.

    Some philosophers of science have proposed the notion of “scientific imperialism” as a contrasting notion to trading zones for characterizing interdisciplinary interactions in science (see e.g. Dupre 1994). Scientific imperialism picks out cases in which one group of scientists push their ideas and methods onto other scientists on the presumption that their approach will do a better job. The scientific imperialist assumes that their methods and theories carry a kind of epistemic warrant lacking in the methods and theories of fields they aim to take over (see contributions to Maki et al. 2018 for examples of putative scientific imperialism).

  10. 10.

    As mentioned in footnote 3 above, Reich champions GWAS work on human behavioral traits as exemplary work in genetics. This highly disputed area of human genetics research is by no means an unassailable source of epistemic warrant for claims made by aDNA researchers.


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I would like to thank Jane M. Downes for pointing me to work in Orkney archaeology and for helpful discussions of the material in this paper. I would also like to thank James Tabery and Alison Wylie for helpful discussions of earlier versions of this paper. Finally, I owe a big thank you to Anton Killin, one of the editors of this special issue, for his comments on earlier drafts, his helpful suggestions for generating responses to referees’ reports and his careful editing of the paper. Work on this paper was supported in part by a Sterling M. McMurrin Esteemed Faculty Award from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah.


This study was not funded by any external Grants. The author received some support from a Sterling M. McMurrin Esteemed Faculty Award from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah (his home department).

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Downes, S.M. The Role of Ancient DNA Research in Archaeology. Topoi 40, 285–293 (2021).

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  • Archaeology
  • Ancient DNA
  • Genetics