11 February 2010

In which my archaeological optimism is fueled by DNA evidence

In the 'Asians everywhere department': recent DNA research found Siberians in Greenland and a man of east Asian decent in Italy.

Reuters reports that a skeleton found in northeast Greenland provides DNA evidence of a separate migration from Siberia into the New World Arctic around 5,500 years ago, unconnected to the ancestors of modern Inuit or other Native American groups. The man, dubbed 'Inuk' after the Greenlandic for 'man', was apparently balding and had a tendency toward dry earwax. The results are 'surprising' because they reveal a previously unknown migration from Siberia into the Americas.

Inuk's mugshot. Bummer about the dry earwax, man.

Another set of DNA from an Imperial estate in Vagnari, Italy (near Bari), uncovered a man with mitochondrial DNA suggesting an east Asian origin on his maternal side. Isotopes in his bones show that he was not born in Italy. Of course, the article immediately racializes him as an 'Asian man', though the genes could have come from a distant ancestor.

I have a couple reactions. First, DNA analysis is cool as hell and I want to read stuff like this all day. Second, why do they have to immediately go with the racial angle in the Roman case? I mean, is anyone surprised that the Roman Empire was a hodgepodge of cultures? A lot of people have this idea that Romans were 'white people' in some modern sense of the term, though that is total nonsense both on a genetic and cultural level - there were a lot of dark-skinned Romans, and the culture did not use the concept of 'race'. (See this nice article about how 'ethnic groups' don't exist from a genetic perspective.)

But more deeply, I get annoyed at how much everyone is 'surprised' by unusual archaeological findings. I'm what I call an "archaeological optimist". I think humans are capable of a lot, so I tend to assume that history is complex and full of amazing stories, travels, and discoveries that we just happen not to know about. You only need stupid theories like aliens building the pyramids if you think people are basically dumb, uncreative, and unambitious. As if we didn't thrive for a million years without electricity, fast foods, and teh internets and figure out a lot of hard stuff along the way.

Asians in Italy? Siberians in Greenland? Well, of course! The Romans had trade missions to China as early as the Han Dynasty, and Chinese travellers are attested to have made it at least as far as Syria in the Seleucid period. The cultures of the Siberian arctic, moreover, were the astronauts of antiquity, thriving in the harshest climate the planet has to offer and eventually peopling the Americas (much more impressive than Columbus' discovery, in my book.) The textual, DNA, and archaeological evidence represent only the tiniest fraction of human activities. So the question is not really 'did people in antiquity do some amazing travel stunts' but 'which ones'? (For a great list of theories to pick from, see here. I bet at least half of them are true.)

p.s. Another cool article, while I'm futzing around on Science Daily: Taiwan is apparently the legendary home island of the Polynesians, according to genetic evidence linking Polynesian and indigenous Taiwanese people. White folks really need to stop thinking of themselves as the only 'great explorers'.

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