A University of Cambridge classicist and an author were arguing on Twitter about diversity in Roman Britain, and, as the Atlantic writes, genetics got dragged into the fray.
The argument was touched off by a BBC video of life in Roman Britain that included a family with differing skin tones. Classicist Mary Beard argued there's evidence that Roman Britain was ethnically diverse, while writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb said that that wasn't typical. To back up his claims, Taleb tweeted genetic studies of modern Europeans, calling it "data" as opposed to Beard's "anecdotes."
The exchange highlighted to the Atlantic that many people view historical genetic data as neutral and unbiased, even though it isn't. Just like other historical sources, it has to be interpreted and has limitations, it adds.
For instance, just because a certain gene variant is common among present-day inhabitants of an area, doesn't mean it always was. Additionally, not all known historical events are written in DNA and, it adds, ancient genetic studies are limited by small sample sizes and low yield and may not reflect patterns among the wider population.
"We have written sources. We have archaeological sources. Now we have genetic sources, but no source speaks for itself," Patrick Geary from Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study tells the Atlantic. "Every kind of source must be interpreted. We are only at the beginning of how to properly interpret the genetic data."