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Durham University

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DNA Evidence? Genetic Anthropology and Historical Debate

A research project of the Department of Anthropology, part of the Public Culture in Theory and Practice research group.


Recently genetic anthropologists have conducted a number of studies using DNA screening that aim to reconstruct the history of human migrations. These tests have raised some important questions about the ethical implications of this type of research and the effect that it may have on the identity of the tested communities. These issues have inspired a number of recent anthropological and sociological studies. This project looks at the effect of genetic research on the work of historians. This question is explored through three case studies: recent research on the ancestry of the Ashkenazi Jews, which suggested that there may be a ‘genetic’ presence of the descendants of the Khazar Empire among them (Behar et al. 2003); a study on pre-historic cannibalism arguing that, contrary to the opinion of some anthropologists, cannibalistic practices may have been wide-spread in the past (Mead 2003); and research on the origin of Indian castes, which supports the view expressed by many historians that those belonging to the higher castes have a higher affinity to Europeans (Bamshad 2001).


The overarching aim of the project is to determine how knowledge and practices stemming from genetic anthropology affect debates among historians, using the examples of genetic research on the Levites, the origin of Indian castes and pre-historic cannibalism.

More specific research questions are as following:

  • How well are historians in question aware of the relevant genetic studies? Do they know about these tests at all? If so, what were their sources of knowledge about these tests?
  • Did the relevant discoveries made by geneticists affect their discussion of the issues in question? Do historians count results of DNA tests as evidence? Would they change their position if it did not appear to be confirmed by geneticists? If it did, would they start referring to the results of the tests as another argument in support of their view or would they refrain from it on the grounds that genetics represents highly specialised scientific knowledge which they do not have any means to ‘check upon’?
  • What is their attitude towards using DNA screening as a method for historical research? It is quite clear that some of the studies in question and other studies in genetic anthropology not only throw light on particular historical debates but may also have significant ethical and political implications. Would historians be taking into consideration these implications of this research when deciding to use or not to use it as a research tool?


The study is based on interviews with relevant historians and an analysis of the debates in question in academic literature and their representations in the mass media.


From the Department of Anthropology