Stone Age Herbalist, Unherd, December 3, 2022
In a quiet group chat in an obscure part of the internet, a small number of anonymous accounts are swapping references from academic publications and feverishly poring over complex graphs of DNA analysis. These are not your average trolls, but scholars, researchers and students who have come together online to discuss the latest findings in archaeology. Why would established academics not be having these conversations in a conference hall or a lecture theatre? The answer might surprise you.
The equation of anonymity on the internet with deviance, mischief and hate has become a central plank in the global war on “misinformation”. But for many of us, anonymity has allowed us to pursue our passion for scholarly research in a way that is simply impossible within the censorious confines of modern academia. And so, in these hidden places, professional geneticists, bioarchaeologists and physical anthropologists have created a network of counter-research. Using home-made software, spreadsheets and private servers, detailed and rigorous work is conducted away from prying eyes and hectoring voices.
Many, like myself, are “junior researchers” or PhD drop-outs — people with one foot in the door but who recognise how precarious academic jobs are. Anonymity comes naturally to a younger generation of internet users, reared on forums and different social media platforms. They exploit the benefits and protections of not having every public statement forever attached to your person. I chose to start an anonymous profile during lockdown, a period which saw many professionals adopt a pseudonym as eyes turned to the internet and political positions emerged in relation to Covid, the presidential election and public demonstrations in the West.
Archaeology has always been a battleground, since it helps define and legitimise crucial subjects about the past, human nature and the history of particular nations and peoples. Most humanities disciplines veer to the Left today, explicitly and implicitly, but archaeology is the outlier. Instead, it is in the middle of an upheaval — one which will have deeply troubling consequences for many researchers who suddenly see decades of carefully managed theories crumble before their eyes.
In the absence of genetic data, it was once possible to argue that changes in the material record (objects and artefacts such as pottery, stone and metal tools, craft objects, clothing and so on) reflected some kind of passive or diffuse spread of technologies and fashions, but this is no longer the case. For instance, for many years students and the public were told that “pots are not people” — that new styles of pottery suddenly appearing in the record does not mean that new people had arrived with them — and the appearance of the so-called “Bell Beaker” pottery in the British Bronze Age showed how imitation and trade allowed new styles of ceramics to spread from the continent.
But in 2018, a bombshell paper proved this was fundamentally incorrect. In fact, nearly 90% of the population of Britain was replaced in a short period, corresponding to the movement of the Bell Beaker people into Britain and the subsequent disappearance of the previous Neolithic inhabitants. We know this because careful genetic work, building from paper to paper, shows clearly that the new arrivals were different people, with different maternal and paternal DNA. Papers like this appear almost weekly now. Most recently, the confirmation that the Anglo-Saxons did indeed arrive from northern Europe has caused many academics a great headache, since for years the very idea of an invasion of Germanic peoples has been downplayed and even dismissed.
What seems obvious to the general public — that prehistory was a bloody mess of invasions, migrations, battles and conflict — is not always a commonplace view among researchers. Worse, the idea that ancient peoples organised themselves among clear ethnic and tribal lines is also taboo. Obvious statements of common sense, such as the existence of patriarchy in the past, are constantly challenged and the general tone of academia is one of refutation: both of established theories and thinkers and of disagreeable parts of the past itself.
Added to this is the ever-present fear that studies and results are being used by the wrong kind of people. In a 2019 journal article, entitled “Genetics, archaeology and the far-Right: An unholy trinity”, Susanne Hakenbeck expresses grave concern that recent genetics work on the early Bronze Age invasions of the Indo-European steppe are needlessly giving oxygen to dangerous ideas — namely that young men from one ethnic group might have migrated from the Pontic-Caspian grasslands and violently subdued their neighbours, passing on their paternal DNA at the expense of the native males. This narrative, fairly well-supported in the genetics literature, is for Hakenbeck deeply unpleasant and wrong:
“We see a return to notions of bounded ethnic groups equivalent to archaeological cultures and of a shared Indo-European social organisation based on common linguistic fragments. Both angles are essentialist and carry a deeply problematic ideological baggage. We are being offered an appealingly simple narrative of a past shaped by virile young men going out to conquer a continent, given apparent legitimacy by the scientific method.”
That war-like young men might have invaded a nearby settlement is apparently a troublesome statement, something that, again, most lay people simply wouldn’t find difficult to contemplate. Yet others have gone further still. Historian Wolf Liebeschuetz and archaeologist Sebastian Brather, to pick on just two, have both firmly insisted that archaeology must not, and cannot, be used to trace migrations or identify different ethnic groups in prehistory. To quote from Liebeschuetz’s 2015 book, East and West in Late Antiquity: “Archaeology can trace cultural diffusion, but it cannot be used to distinguish between peoples, and should not be used to trace migration. Arguments from language and etymology are irrelevant.”
At a stroke, this line of reasoning would essentially abolish several centuries of work unravelling the thread of movements and evolution of the Indo-European peoples and languages, not to mention the post-Roman Germanic Migration Period, Anglo-Saxon invasions, Polynesian and Bantu Expansions and almost all major changes in the human record. But this is precisely the point: by depriving archaeology of the ability to point to when and where different groups emerged and moved, there can be no grist to the nationalist mill. Origin stories such as the foundation of Hungary, England, France, Turkey and Japan can be collapsed into an amorphous and frankly boring set of stories about pottery styles, trade and domestic craft. Any hint of danger or exclusion must be downplayed as much as possible.