Exploring your Inner Hades: DNA as Mortuary Archaeology

Thomas James Booth


Two revolutions in using human genetics to investigate the past are beginning to have a profound effect on how the public regard heritage and their connection to it. Direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests (GATs) are becoming a popular way for the public to explore their familial history and ancestry. Major advances in ancient DNA methods mean that the field is beginning to live up to its early promise. Both of these analyses can be considered forms of public mortuary archaeology in how they are perceived to provide an individual an interface with their recent and more ancient ancestors, their own personal Hades, referring to the Ancient Greek home of the dead. GATs are useful for resolving genealogy and determining the origins of an individual’s recent ancestors, but have been criticized for reifying differences between populations, failing to give clear guidance on how they should be interpreted and making exaggerated links to historic groups of people that are at the heart of genetically determinist nationalistic origin myths. Recent palaeogenomic studies of prehistoric Europeans have found evidence for population discontinuity that will have repercussions for the public’s perception of archaeological mortuary sites and the communities who built them. Public archaeologists are going to have to engage increasingly with these types of data to combat the misappropriation of genetic results in defining rights and affinities to archaeological heritage.


ancient DNA; Genetic Ancestry Tests; nationalism; public archaeology; mortuary archaeology

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.23914/ap.v8i2.160


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