MOTHER TONGUE
Newsletter of the Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory

Issue 25 · Summer 1995


Ancient DNA: A Third Time at Oxford

This refers not to some tenured mandarins but rather to an interesting conference held recently at Oxford University. The third conference on ancient DNA was held, with a fine group of scholars in attendance. It is important to point out that the ancient DNA in question is that derived from direct examination of fossils, relics of the tissues of the formerly living, not from any inferences made about ancient populations from modern field data. Whatever their intentions, however, some papers did project back in time the data from modern folks.

Thanks to reporters, Becky Cann and Andy Merriwether, some items of interest. First, great scepticism currently awaits any conclusions based on fossil data older than, say, 10,000 years. Too much tissue loss --> unreliable data.

Second, despite that, many people are trying to extract some things from Neanderthal bones. It is very hard going technically but the potential rewards are great. Of course, as everyone knows, finding some clear nuclear DNA or mtDNA from Neanderthal fossils will help test Cann's thesis that Homo sapiens s. is quite distinct from Neanderthal.

Third, so great is Cavalli-Sforza's prestige that many at the conference were surprised to hear that HGHG had not actually covered the whole world -- properly.

Fourth, Basques are not so very different from west Europeans, especially British, French, and Iberian. Nor did HGHG show a great chasm between the Basques and their fellow Atlantic fringers either. If there remain doubts about this, the mtDNA results from western Europe will dispel them. Words like 'quite similar' described Basques in relation to the others. We have all been eager to show Basque affinity with the folks of the Caucasus, which no one can truly refute because we actually know little genetically about Caucasic- speaking peoples. Will someone please send a group of graduate students to New Jersey where quite a few West Caucasic-speakers live! Or to Israel where many Circassians are found! Can't the many reporters doing the Chechen war bring back some vials of blood? Or purses stuffed full of hair follicles?

Fifth, Andy's paper itself was a major event. He has more data from South American Amerinds, Yamomami in particular, which show the presence of even more haplogroups in the New World than were proposed before. His previous paper in MT-23 is stronger now. There was basically one migration to the New World, bringing Amerinds, Na-Dene and Eskaleuts from an Asian homeland or dispersal point in or around Mongolia. Actually from his own remarks it seems that Tibet is a bit more likely. Andy's data are mtDNA, as you know, and his research is right on the 'cutting edge' as they say, judged by the people he cites and who cite him. It is also amusing that the peoples who link together in Andy's analysis are elsewhere called Mongoloids. In Cavalli-Sforza's dendrograms the branch called 'Northern Mongoloid' fits Andy's group very well.

Sixth, another spin-off of Andy's research, also mentioned by others at Oxford, is a retreat from the notion of dating by biogenetic analysis. It is not in principle impossible; it is too uncertain at the moment to be trusted. So Andy and some others, at least, are avoiding the chance to date migrations into the New World. Some say they heard him propose a date of 15,000 BP for the basic migration from Asia but Andy denies that. He might have said it at the conference but his considered opinion is still negative about dating the migration.

There were other topics at the Oxford conference but we will report them elsewhere (e.g., Robert Wayne's work on dogs -- below). We also do not know if or where or when the conference will be published.

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(c) 1996 Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory