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Genetic Research Must Stop Fueling Mideast Racial Narratives

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A skeleton found in an archaeological excavation of a Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon, in 2016.
A skeleton found in an archaeological excavation of a Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon, in 2016.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Readers of Haaretz have recently been treated to a series of “discoveries” based on the sequencing of human DNA from early historical periods. Each of these “discoveries,” upon examination, turns out to be little more than a bioarchaeological confirmation of long-standing theories about the origins or migration of peoples and cultures – “Philistines,” “Phoenicians,” “Canaanites” and others – in southwestern Asia and the Mediterranean Basin. Consequently, they are but the latest episode in a long and troubling scientific tradition which posits the existence of an innate quality that determines an individual’s identity and their affiliation to a pre-defined collective.

This quality outweighs any other form of self-identification, such as family, community or culture. According to this perception, even if someone “looks” or “behaves” like a member of a certain group or community, or if – as is often the case in archaeology – there is no clue to an individual’s identity, an examination of this ineffable quality, of which even its owner is unaware, can determine who they “really” are.

The effort to confirm historical, linguistic and cultural origins of peoples typified 19th- and early 20th-century archaeology. Science was recruited to provide “objective” parameters for cultural and racial affiliation, free of human intent: Skeletal and cranial characteristics determined race; comparative philology could be used to track population movements and to gather disparate cultures under headings that implied shared attributes such as “Semites” (speakers of Semitic languages) and “Aryans” (speakers of Indo-European languages). These divisions of humanity became fundamental components of imperialist ideologies that established global European supremacy, serving as the basis for modern “scientific” and genocidal racism.

After World War II, biological definitions of race were largely abandoned in the human sciences; race became widely understood as a political, constitutional, cultural and social construct. Nations too began to be defined as “imagined communities” in which membership is based on a shared mythology and origin story, rather than on blood relationship.

Burial of Philistine infant, AshkelonCredit: Ilan Sztulman / Courtesy Leon Le

But it appears that archaeologists, especially in our part of the world, did not get the memo. Many still adhere to reductive identity labels and colonial templates that view the ancient world as a mosaic of distinct, territorially defined cultures. In these templates, the primary interactions between peoples and cultures can be marked on a map with thick black arrows that indicate incursion, migration or military conquest.

Ostensibly, the study of ancient DNA does not address race or nationality, preferring to use neutral terms such as “population” or “ancestry.” But as historian and philosopher of science Snait Gissis recently noted in an article in Hazman Hazeh magazine (“The racial assumption in genomic science,” May 2020, in Hebrew), the definition of “populations” is a construct based on certain preliminary assumptions: “As the preliminary assumptions change, so too will the division into different populations.”

In the case of archaeology, these terms take on a national or racial hue when they are recruited to answer questions that incorporate assumptions about nationality, origin and population movements. The neutral description (“We identified genetic variation”) becomes a claim about a process (“We identified a flow of genes from one place to another”), and with the help of the archaeologist, that turns into a claim about a certain kind of migration (“waves of people arrived”).

A comparison between populations is immediately transformed into an assumption about the degree of connection between them. The archaeologists frame questions that already presume the existence of particular “nations,” “cultures” and “migrations,” and get answers that are nothing more than a confirmation of what they already “knew”: The “Philistines” (does anyone know who the Philistines were?) did in fact come from “Europe” (what was “Europe” in the Bronze Age?), “Phoenicians” are, in fact, “Canaanites,” the “Chalcolithic culture” was introduced into the Levant by blue-eyed invaders from the north [sic!]. But now, in addition to the archaeological “knowledge” based on essentialist assumptions regarding cultural and ethnic identity, there is scientific confirmation from “the most important research center in the world.”

Researchers taking samples at Megiddo to study Canaanite DNA, wearing protective gear to prevent contamination of the samplesCredit: Israel Finkelstein/Megiddo Expedition

In addition to their problematic premise, the studies published about the origin and movements of populations in the ancient world are beset by methodical and ethical pitfalls. First, the researchers uncritically accept the assumption that their sample represents a distinctive “population.” In the most recent publication about the “Canaanites,” for example, 13 skeletons from a single site in the coastal region (Yehud) represent, according to the study, several million human beings who lived in the area during a time span of about 500 years (the Intermediate Bronze Age). Would such a sampling be accepted in any other field?

Second, the researchers assume that a genetic similarity between two distant populations indicates migration from one place to the other, although there are many ways for genetic material to be transferred – for instance, through intermediary sedentary populations or by circulating nomadic groups. In the aforementioned study, the researchers present as evidence for “gene flow” from the Caucasus to the Levant an ancient migrant community that I have been studying for about 20 years – the “Bet Yerah” (or Khirbet Kerak) culture.

While the Caucasian connection has long been assumed, our research suggests that the cultural phenomenon predates the time frame suggested by the geneticists by about 400 years; moreover, the archaeological probability is that the elements of this culture made several stops, covering many decades and centuries, before arriving in the north of the country with the people who settled at our site. It is thus a complex story of transmission to which genomics have little to contribute. But complexity doesn’t sell newspapers.

The third shortcoming is related to research motivation and public responsibility. When the editors of the study went public with their findings, they must have realized that the media’s main interest would revolve around questions of cultural precedence and identity politics (Who was here first?). They knew that indigeneity is highly contested in this part of the world (Who is more Jewish? Who is more native?). By framing their study in ethnic terms, they exploited these anxieties to gain the greatest exposure (coveted by their competitive home institutions), without considering the possibility of harmful real-world consequences. They will have no grounds for complaint when their ostensible insights are weaponized by those who want to justify discrimination in the present.

The implications are clear: Archaeologists, don’t subvert your own field by reducing humanity to its biological components; we are far more than the sum of our genes. Reporters, beware of promoting biological conceptions of race and identity: We’ve been down that road before.

Prof. Raphael Greenberg is an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University and the director of the excavations at Tel Bet Yerah.

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