Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cultural Affiliation, Genetic Material, and Indigenous Peoples: What Can We Learn?

The use of genetic material has been a major source of new information in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, ethnic studies, geography, and many others. Through the use of genetic material, researchers have been able to examine the history of human migration around the world through both time and space. Unlike archaeology, which relies on artifacts and other items left behind by humans, the genetic material points to actual individuals, not simply parts of a culture that may no longer exist. However, there has been one area in which genetic studies have actually clouded the picture of human history, rather then shedding any light. This is in terms of cultural affiliation. Because genetic material does not point to cultural manifestations, but rather individuals in time and space, it is unable to tell us little about the culture of the individual whose genetic material is being studied.

Now, this is not a problem if the individual whose genetic material under study is alive. One can simply ask them about their cultural affiliation. However, in terms of indigenous peoples, more is at stake. What is at stake are claims of ancestry, land rights, self-determination rights, and much more. The famous Kennewick Man case was about this very issue. In fact, I have two books on the topic (here, and here).

The real question is, therefore, what can genetic studies tell us about contemporary indigenous peoples and their ancestry? One example of what we can learn I discussed in terms of the indigenous peoples of the Andes and the use of mitochondrial DNA for determining cultural affiliation (the article can be found here). Another example comes from a recent study by Bolnick and Smith (American Antiquity 72(4):627-644), in which they conclude that "The pattern of mtDNA variation at this site suggests that matrilineal relationships did not strongly influence burial practices." The authors were studying the Klunk Mound Group in Illinois, looking at burial patterns and the sites overall relation to the famous Native American Hopewell Moundbuilders. The really interesting point is that in this case the genetic material tells us nothing about the culture of the people associated with the Klunk Mound Group. This is because they used mtDNA, which is only transferred from mother to daughter, but because the Native American people of the Klunk Mound didn't necessarily practice matrilineal burial practices, we can discern little. We do know that they didn't practice matrilineal burial practices, but beyond that, we are unable to determine much else regarding the culture and the affiliation of those associated with the culture.

So what this tells us is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to use genetic material to determine cultural affiliation. Because cultures are defined largely on what they leave behind, at least archaeologically, it is very difficult to match the culture with a genetic population (because the genetic population is defined on gene allele profiles, not cultural items). Thus, although molecular genetic studies may give us some key insights into populations in history, trying to link those populations to a culture must be done with the utmost caution, and with collaborating evidence, including archaeology, ethnography, linguistics, and oral traditions.

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