Genetics, Politics, and Dangerous Essentialism

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:10 AM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton)
Susanne Hakenbeck, University of Cambridge
In the last decade new advances in archaeological sciences, such as genetic and isotopic analyses, have revived an interest in grand narratives in which ethnic groups are once again seen to be agents of historical change. Between the 1980s and early 2000s, much of archaeological writing focused on a smaller scale – sites and artefacts – and explored the minutiae of social life in the past. New scientific developments are now generating a sense of optimism that difficult big questions may at last be resolved. For example, genomics claims to have proven that the spread of Indo-European languages was associated with large-scale migrations and population replacements (Allentoft et al. 2015) and it supposedly reveals the extent and nature of the Anglo-Saxon migrations to England (Schiffels et al. 2016). Paralleling this new enthusiasm for definite answers, past years have seen a number of popular attempts at explaining current social and political issues – the Syrian refugee crisis, Islamic terrorism, the rise of authoritarianism – with reference to apparent historical parallels, notably Niall Ferguson’s piece ‘Paris and the Fall of Rome’ (Boston Globe, 11.16.15) or the widely circulated piece ‘History tells us what will happen next with Brexit and Trump’ (Huffington Post, 25.7.16). Suggesting simple causations, they point to historical events as explanations of present predicaments. Equally, ‘blockbuster’ archaeological papers are widely reported in the media and generate much popular interest. In this paper I explore why grand narratives of the past are resurfacing at this time, both within academic discourse and beyond, and what the implications are of a view of the past in which ethnic groups (under the guise of genetics) are once again seen as agents of change.
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