Jacob Mikanowski writes: Most of human history is prehistory. Of the 200,000 or more years that humans have spent on Earth, only a tiny fraction have been recorded in writing. Even in our own little sliver of geologic time, the 12,000 years of the Holocene, whose warm weather and relatively stable climate incubated the birth of agriculture, cities, states, and most of the other hallmarks of civilisation, writing has been more the exception than the rule.
Professional historians can’t help but pity their colleagues on the prehistoric side of the fence. Historians are accustomed to drawing on vast archives, but archaeologists must assemble and interpret stories from scant material remains. In the annals of prehistory, cultures are designated according to modes of burial such as ‘Single Grave’, or after styles of arrowhead, such as ‘Western Stemmed Point’. Whole peoples are reduced to styles of pottery, such as Pitted Ware, Corded Ware or Funnel Beaker, all of them spread across the map in confusing, amoeba-like blobs.
In recent years, archaeologists have become reluctant to infer too much from assemblages of ceramics, weapons and grave goods. For at least a generation, they have been drilled on the mantra that ‘pots are not people’. Material culture is not a proxy for identity. Artefacts recovered from a dig can provide a wealth of information about a people’s mode of subsistence, funeral rites and trade contacts, but they are not a reliable guide to their language or ethnicity – or their patterns of migration.
Before the Second World War, prehistory was seen as a series of invasions, with proto-Celts and Indo-Aryans swooping down on unsuspecting swaths of Europe and Asia like so many Vikings, while megalith builders wandered between continents in indecisive meanders. After the Second World War, this view was replaced by the processual school, which attributed cultural changes to internal adaptations. Ideas and technologies might travel, but people by and large stayed put. Today, however, migration is making a comeback.
Much of this shift has to do with the introduction of powerful new techniques for studying ancient DNA. The past five years have seen a revolution in the availability and scope of genetic testing that can be performed on prehistoric human and animal remains. Ancient DNA is tricky to work with. Usually it’s degraded, chemically altered and cut into millions of short fragments. But recent advances in sequencing technology have made it possible to sequence whole genomes from samples reaching back thousands, and tens of thousands, of years. Whole-genome sequencing yields orders of magnitude more data than organelle-based testing, and allows geneticists to make detailed comparisons between individuals and populations. Those comparisons are now illuminating new branches of the human family tree. [Continue reading…]