Social and spatial scales in historical reconstructions: archaeology and genetics

by Scott MacEachern

Recent publications on the recovery of ancient DNA from sub-Saharan African human remains signal a new phase in the study of the African past, as has been the case in other regions of the world. Discussions between geneticists and archaeologists about the interpretations of such research results sometimes exhibit a degree of mutual incomprehension, even though the population terminologies being used are frequently the same. The same populational identifiers/ethnonyms may be used by different participants in such discussions, but these terms do not necessarily mean exactly the same thing to the researchers involved. The spatial and social scales that practitioners of these disciplines rely on in their analyses may be quite different, involving for example different understandings of historical dynamics and of sub-group and intergroup relations. These different assumptions render reconciliation of historical models and interdisciplinary collaboration challenging.