The History of PreHistory


New York Times Magazine

By Gideon Lewis-Kraus

Jan. 17, 2019

Gideon Lewis-Kraus's recent article, Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths---Or Falling into Old Traps? - which reports on how new techniques for analyzing DNA from ancient bones is revolutionizing paleontology & profoundly reshaping our understanding of ancient history - created a stir in the scientific & anthropological worlds when it was published in the New York Times Magazine in January.

For most of human history, our beliefs about our origins drew upon oral traditions or the evidence found in ancient texts. One 17th-century scholar calculated, on the basis of biblical genealogies, that the creation happened in 4004 B.C.; subsequent refinements settled on the date of Oct. 23. Sir Isaac Newton criticized the ancient Egyptians for the “vanity” of their own calendrical reckoning, which placed the beginning of their monarchy before the existence of the world. As the pre-eminent British archaeologist Colin Renfrew once put it, “For an educated man in the 17th or even the 18th century, any suggestion that the human past extended back further than 6,000 years was a vain and foolish speculation.”

It wasn’t long before a series of scientific interventions pried open human prehistory to methodical study. Two great advances of 1859 helped cement the view that 4004 B.C. was not, in fact, the starting point of all human activity. The first was the argument, made by a geologist and an antiquarian, that animal remains found alongside stone tools in Britain and France proved the antiquity of the human race. The second was the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” which was incompatible with both the specifics of biblical creationism and the more general proposition that the world was only a few thousand years old. It was all of a sudden widely plausible that stuff in the ground had been there for an unimaginably long time.

Before anyone could even begin to tell an ordered story about what might have happened, however, there needed to be a way to differentiate what happened sooner from what happened later. In the early 20th century, geologists and archaeologists began to draw upon contemporary observations of regular sedimentary deposits to project elementary prehistorical “clocks” backward in time. The end of the last ice age, for example, was set at about 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists then realized that they could cross-reference these geological clocks with the earliest written documents, ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian records that reached back 4,000 or 5,000 years. If geological time could be roughly calibrated everywhere, and if even a smattering of places had left behind calendars, recorded history could be tied to sedimentary chronology and true dates derived from the ground.

This was heralded as a magnificent advance. The trouble, as it turned out, was that an emphasis on written records from Egypt and the Middle East prompted scholars to take for granted the cultural superiority of those early civilizations and to make major assumptions on that basis — Stonehenge, for example, simply had to have followed the majesty of the Great Pyramids.

In 1949, the invention of radiocarbon dating, by the American physical chemist Willard F. Libby, turned the whole field upside down. By giving cosmically certain dates rather than cross-referenced estimations, radiocarbon dating undermined virtually all of archaeology’s basic premises. (Stonehenge could not have been patterned after the Great Pyramids if it was built at the same time as Giza.) There was stubborn resistance to the new lab results. These dates, pronounced one vaunted Edinburgh archaeologist with a now-notorious sniff, are “archaeologically unacceptable.” By the early 1960s, they could no longer be ignored, and a new generation of archaeologists gutted the discipline and rebuilt it with very different assumptions — ones that did not rely on the idea that a few peoples of first-rate culture and pedigree had been responsible for humanity’s major steps forward.

If prehistorians had learned one hard lesson from chemists, their colleagues in biology departments were slowly laying the groundwork for another. In 1967, the molecular biologist Allan Wilson at the University of California, Berkeley, along with one of his students, Vincent Sarich, demonstrated that evolutionary relationships between species could be determined not only from fossils but also, via a quantitative analysis of blood proteins, from living specimens. Humans and apes, Wilson found, diverged only five million years ago — far more recently than previously believed.

Within the decade, researchers trained in the discipline of population genetics would get in on the historical act. Every contemporary genome is a mosaic of individual tiles passed along from thousands of ancestors; each of us thus contains not only our “own” ancestry but those of multitudes. With each new generation, random mutations, like misspellings, are introduced into a population; some of these will disappear over time, but others will increase in frequency until they are common enough to become a statistically significant part of a population’s genetic signature. If two populations have been distinct for a long time — that is, if people from one don’t tend to mate with people from the other — they will share fewer of these mutations; if they encountered each other and were fruitful, their mutation frequencies will overlap. These insights could be made relevant to prehistorians insofar as they could demonstrate that modern human populations were forged in the mixture of ancient ones. It was still mostly impossible, though, to conclude anything about when these groups might have mixed, or where, or how.

The answers to those questions required not just contemporary genetic data but actual prehistoric DNA. The idea that it might be preserved in old specimens has been around since 1984, when Wilson announced that his lab had extracted DNA from the salted skin of a quagga, an extinct equine species with the head of a zebra and the haunches of a donkey. The further possibilities suggested by ancient DNA were awarded a special place in the public imagination by the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” But even as the journal Nature capitalized on the premiere with a paper that sequenced the DNA of an amber-trapped weevil — a study rendered dubious after widespread speculation that the sample had been contaminated with the researchers’ own DNA — observers wondered whether the sequencing of ancient genomes was just a neat trick or research of actual value.

Over the past few years, a growing cohort of scientists has at last produced a fantastic answer. Ancient DNA, they believe, not only allows us to cut through what scholars once wrote off as “wrapped in a thick fog” of “heathendom.” It promises nothing less than what the Harvard geneticist David Reich has called “the genome revolution in the study of the human past.” 3. The Revisionist In his recent book, Reich ranks the “ancient-DNA revolution” with the invention of the microscope. Ancient DNA, his research suggests, can explain with more certainty and detail than any previous technique the course of human evolution, history and identity — as he puts it in the book’s title, “Who We Are and How We Got Here.” Though Reich works with samples that are thousands or tens of thousands of years old, the phrase “ancient DNA” encompasses any old genetic material that has been heavily degraded, and Reich’s work has been made possible only by a series of technological and procedural advances. Researchers in the field ship or hand-carry the bones to Harvard, where clean-suited technicians expose them to ultraviolet light to prevent contamination, then bore holes in them with dental drills. These skeletal remains are often rare — one pinkie-finger fragment that researchers in a lab in Leipzig used to demonstrate the existence of a long-extinct form of archaic humans was one of only four such bones ever found. Minuscule portions of genetic code are isolated and enriched, then read by expensive sequencers; statistical techniques then plot the relationship between this particular sample and thousands more in enormous data sets.

. Reich’s analysis helped demonstrate that most living humans, with the general exception of sub-Saharan Africans, have some Neanderthal ancestry. “It was clear with the sequencing of the Neanderthal,” Reich told me in his office, “that this was obviously the best data in the world in any type of science.” It didn’t just tell you that Indians were a mixed group; it could, in theory, specify the moment where and when that mixture began.

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.” 4. What Happened?

Everybody pretty much agrees that the story of what happened began in Africa, with the evolution of modern humans; later, as of 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, the human story continued on the other continents. As Reich sees it, the study of ancient DNA has disproved our conjectures about what happened next. One longtime premise is that as these early humans spread out in all directions over the land, groups of them encountered places that struck their fancy, pitched their tents and more or less stayed “home” for the duration of prehistory. This is not just a pet theory of academic prehistorians but the natural way that human beings have tended, over the millenniums, to connect their identities to where they live. The ni-Vanuatu, for example, take for granted their eternal ties to the archipelago; their oral traditions ascribe their origins to some nonhuman feature of the landscape, their first ancestors having emerged from a stone, say, or a coconut tree. Nonindigenous people seek the same rootedness in consumer ancestry services like 23andMe, which declare that they’re “Spanish” or “Yoruba.”

Reich believes he has proved, to the contrary, that human history is marked not by stasis and purity but by movement and cross-pollination. People who live in a place today often bear no genetic resemblance to people who lived there thousands of years ago, so the idea that something in your blood makes you meaningfully Spanish is absurd. Paabo had shown that early humans mated with Neanderthals, but that was only one small part of the swirling “admixture” that characterized human interbreeding. Even after the Neanderthals became extinct, roughly 40,000 years ago, the archaic human populations of the earth — Reich gives them names like Ancient North Eurasians — were utterly unlike the populations we see today.

While Paabo continued to work on the Neanderthal period, Reich devoted his energy to obtaining samples from the last 10,000 or so years — the historical domain of archaeologists. Ancient DNA’s “big bang,” as more than one geneticist described it to me, came with the 2015 publication, in Nature, of a Reich paper called “Massive Migration From the Steppe Was a Source for Indo-European Languages in Europe.” On the basis of genetic information culled from 69 ancient individuals dug up by collaborating archaeologists in Scandinavia, Western Europe and Russia, the paper argued that Europeans aren’t quite who they thought they were. About 5,000 years ago, a “relatively sudden” mass migration of nomadic herders from the east — the steppes of eastern Ukraine and southern Russia — swept in and almost entirely replaced existing communities of hunter-gatherers and early farmers in Central and Northern Europe. These newcomers were known to exploit many of the cutting-edge technologies of the time: the domestication of horses, the wheel and, perhaps most salient, axes and spearheads of copper. (Their corpses sometimes featured cutting-edge wounds.)

The Reich team inferred that the major source of contemporary European ancestry — and probably Indo-European languages as well — was not, in fact, from Europe but from far to the east. And this discovery, confirmed by the near-simultaneous publication of almost identical results from a competing ancient-DNA lab in Denmark, had monumental implications for science’s understanding of the whole ancient world. Great migration events — like the movement of Siberian peoples into North America or the spread of voyagers into the Pacific — were not outliers but the norm. After Europe and India, there were similar mass migrations identified in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. No one ever expected that we could possibly amass so much new evidence about the human past. And no one was producing this work at the pace and throughput of David Reich and his genomics factory. Most scientists felt lucky if they published one or at the most two Nature papers in a lifetime. Reich was publishing three or four a year.

There was an obvious pattern to the great migratory arrows freshly drawn across world geography, which were often coincident with the spread of technology or agricultural practices. Earlier paleogenomic results established thousands of years of heady mixture among long-forgotten ancient populations. With the relatively recent rise of everything we associate with “culture” — technologies like agriculture, metallurgy and eventually writing — much of this continuous “admixture” began to give way, it seemed, to discontinuous episodes better characterized as “replacement” or “turnover.” That is, about 5,000 to 9,000 years ago, human history was, at least in a few crucial places, less about various groups coming together and more about some groups blotting out their neighbors.

This was not only relevant as an eccentricity of prehistoric demography, but broadly consequential for the ongoing study of culture itself — of where new ideas come from and how they proliferate. When we thought of populations as stationary and largely stable, we assumed that whatever evolutionary progress they made, from toolmaking to agriculture, reflected either a native innovation or the incorporation of some adjacent group’s avant-garde practice. Now it seemed as though culture was less about the invention and spread of new ideas and more about the mass movements of particular peoples — and the resulting integration, outcompetition or extermination of the communities they overran. Previously, it was possible to think about prehistory as a kind of grand bazaar. Now the operative metaphor (as multiple science journalists observed) was more like Risk, or even “Game of Thrones.” .