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Science Frenemies

In 2010, the first ancient human genome was fully sequenced, and since then, researchers have gathered data on more than 1,300 such ancient individuals in studies that have charted the spread of languages, agricultural trends, and certain populations, Nature News says. Some archeologists who have studied such topics for decades are happy to use genomics technology alongside analysis of physical finds such as tombs and buried cities to enhance their work. But others are more wary, according to the article.

"Half the archaeologists think ancient DNA can solve everything. The other half think ancient DNA is the devil's work," Philipp Stockhammer, a researcher at Ludwig-Maximilians University, tells Nature News. But, he adds, while the technology won't solve all of archeology's problems, the discipline shouldn't ignore genomics altogether. 

The problem, some archaeologists think, is that genomics isn't nuanced at all. They're concerned that the ancient DNA studies that are currently so popular are manking too many assumptions about links between biology and culture, according to Nature News. "They give the impression that they've sorted it out," Marc Vander Linden, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, tells the magazine. "That's a little bit irritating."

In fact, some archeologists believe that genetics is describing something entirely different from archeology. Genetics and genomics are focused on shifts in ancestry and the movement of genetic signatures, while archeologists are looking at cultural practices, they tell Nature News. And those two things may not always be the same thing.

In the end, archeologists will likely find ways to use genomics to their own advantage. Patrick Geary, a medieval historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, tells Nature News that historians are increasingly incorporating data such as palaeoclimate records into their work, and that they will likely do the same with ancient DNA. But historians share archaeologists' fears that biology and culture will be conflated, and that genetic profiles will override insights into how ancient peoples viewed themselves. "These days, what historians want to know about is identity. Genetics cannot answer these questions," he tells Nature News.

David Reich, a population geneticist at Harvard Medical School, concedes to Nature News that genetics can sometimes lack nuance. However, he says, archeologists and historians ignore the technology at their peril. "We're barbarians coming late to the study of the human past," he tells the magazine. "But it's dangerous to ignore barbarians."