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Beyond binaries. Interrogating ancient DNA

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 May 2020

Rachel J. Crellin*
School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
Oliver J.T. Harris
School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK


In this paper we explore ancient DNA (aDNA) as a powerful new technique for archaeologists. We argue that for aDNA to reach its full potential we need to carefully consider its theoretical underpinnings. We suggest that at present much aDNA research rests upon two problematic theoretical assumptions: first, that nature and culture exist in binary opposition and that DNA is a part of nature; second, that cultures form distinct and bounded identities. The nature–culture binary, which underpins much aDNA research, not only is a misunderstanding of our world but also results in placing archaeology and material culture in a secondary and subservient position to science and aDNA. Viewing cultures as distinct and bounded creates exclusionary, simplistic and singular identities for past populations. This stands in contrast to the work of social scientists, which has revealed identity to be complex, multiple, changing and contradictory. We offer a new way forward drawing upon assemblage thinking and post-humanism. This allows us to consider the messy and complex nature of our world and of human identities, and demands that we expect equally messy and complex results to emerge when we bring aDNA into conversation with other forms of archaeological evidence.

© The Author(s) 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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