Why the scientific facts don’t always matter
The past is the problem.
Not just the politics of the past, the nineteenth-century theories of race and the colonial hierarchy of races that still permeate our subconscious, but the deeper past, further back. The problem is with how we build our ideas of who we are. When biologists try to understand ancient human migration, when they pick through our genomes and those of our distant ancestors, they are part of age-old efforts to piece together our origin stories.
In China, it’s believed that taming the flooding of the Yellow River many thousands of years ago, by a man named Gun and his son Yu, marked the dawn of Chinese agricultural civilization. It’s a legend that helps build national identity, serving a unifying purpose and lending a sense of superiority. Over the centuries, myths take on a life of their own, each generation recasting them to suit their needs until we can no longer tell the difference between myth and history. Before we know it, the glorious tales of our ancestors become our historical facts. Their ghosts become our icons. And of course we need to believe that they were better than they really were, that they were nothing less than superhuman. The founding myth of Rome is of the abandoned baby twins, Romulus and Remus, suckled by a she-wolf and rescued by a god. German nationalists told of a blond, rugged hero, Hermann, who defeated the Romans and united Germany’s disparate tribes. These figures have become woven into national identity, pulling people together in the belief in the cosmic power of their forebears, cementing their particular claim on human civilization.
So science is not enough to forge identity. We also need stories to build a sense of who we are, even if the stories are held together with only threads of truth. There was indeed a German tribal chief who spearheaded a victory against the Romans two thousand years ago, on which the legend of Hermann is constructed. And in 2016 Chinese researchers confirmed that there really had been a giant flood around 1920 BCE. But legends must have been written around these facts until the people hearing them could no longer separate them from fact. The bloody realities became whitewashed over time, each iteration making the story cleaner, brighter, and more dramatic than the original. And this was necessary, not just for the sake of producing a gripping narrative but also because it’s tough to build national pride and a sense of superiority around a dirty history.
The anthropologist Jennifer Raff, based at the University of Kansas, is, in her words, a “middle-class white girl” and she, too, grew up on a powerful origin story. “Those of us in the United States have been taught this idea of American exceptionalism,” she says, “that our country is the greatest country, and is founded on these wonderful beliefs, this freedom and equality and democracy.” It’s a narrative that rests on the assumption that European pioneers in the seventeenth century filled a largely empty land with visions of a better society, deploying their unmatched skill and hard work to cultivate it. As in Australia, the indigenous inhabitants were framed as a dying race—if not gone, then definitely on their way out.
The subtext is that, without white Europeans, civilization couldn’t have flourished in North America. The United States was theirs to make.
It’s not easy to square this popular founding myth with the more brutal historical facts. Of course, Native Americans weren’t as primitive, dwindling, or sparse as the settlers liked to portray them. When the land turned out to be less vacant than they hoped, European colonizers made every effort to empty it. Thousands of Native Americans died on the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of several Native American tribes from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States to designated Indian territories west of the Mississippi, following legislation passed in 1830. Many more were killed by diseases brought by the migrants to which Native Americans had no resistance. Deaths frequently went unrecorded, which means today we have only the vaguest estimates of how populated North America really was before colonizers arrived. Genetic analysis published in 2011 suggests that the number of female Native Americans may have shrunk by half upon contact with Europeans five centuries ago.
We know this now. The founding myth becomes harder and harder to maintain. And yet it has strange ways of reasserting itself, even within academic circles, as Raff has found. Her work, trying to understand the distant past and the effects of race and migration, has shown her how easy it is for people, including respected scholars, to resist abandoning popular myths and racialized views of the past even in the face of undeniable evidence. Indeed the myth of American exceptionalism is so pervasive that an entire scientific theory exists to explain it, weaving in archaeology and anthropology with the notion that Europeans are the ultimate bearers of human progress. It’s known as the Solutrean hypothesis.
Crafted in earnest in the 1970s, the Solutrean hypothesis takes its name from archaeological evidence of certain tool-making techniques belonging to the Solutrean culture, which existed in parts of what is now France and Spain between 23,000 and 18,000 years ago. The Solutrean method of making blades by forming long, narrow flakes appears to be similar to the technique used in New Mexico by a culture known as the Clovis, which is thought to be some 13,000 years old. If the Clovis tools, which would have been used to kill such beasts as mammoths and bison, weren’t developed independently, then the Solutreans might have brought them to the Americas.
Geologists know that less than fifteen thousand years ago sea levels were low, allowing for a land bridge across the Bering Strait that would have joined modern-day Russia and Alaska. People could even have lived in the region between Asia and Alaska for an extended period of time before spreading farther eastward. According to new research, there may have been waves of migration in both directions, with some people returning to Asia. So far, however, the most convincing account of what happened is that the first Americans came from the west, not the east.
But if the Solutrean hypothesis is true, it means Europeans came to the Americas long before the colonists of the seventeenth century, that in fact they were among the first people to live here, having somehow crossed the treacherous Atlantic during the last ice age, which ended around 11,700 years ago. Way back then, vast swathes of the planet would have been covered in sheets of ice, and sailing—or perhaps snowboarding—3,700 miles across the Atlantic would have been a survival challenge of epic proportions. Yet those who defend this account believe that it was nevertheless possible, especially if there was a continuous ice shelf across the ocean, which could have provided fresh water and food throughout the journey.
It’s a theory at the very margins of science, yet a small number of American archaeologists have staked their careers on it, publishing books on the Solutrean hypothesis and clinging to the belief that more evidence will prove them right. Among the most vocal is Bruce Bradley, usually based at the University of Exeter in England. In the 1970s Bradley became aware of similarities between ancient stone tools dug up in northern Spain and those found in New Mexico. He couldn’t believe that these similarities were coincidental.
In a telephone interview Bradley tells me, “The basic underlying technology, the way stone tools are made, unless you understand how many detailed choices you have when you’re making stone tools, things seem like they could happen accidentally. . . . It’s not just the blades, it’s the way they made all the other tools. Virtually all of them have correspondences that are very, very striking between Solutrean and Clovis.” This suggests that the peoples of the Americas must have reached there from Europe, possibly by traveling across the North Atlantic, via Greenland and Canada.
The political implications are clear. It could be read as a suggestion that Europeans had a prior claim to the Americas, because their ancestors were already here many thousands of years before Columbus arrived in 1492. When they came again, millennia later, then, they were only returning to a land that was already theirs. “I see it as intimately tied up with the idea of Manifest Destiny,” explains Raff. This was a belief, particularly popular in the nineteenth century, that the European settlers who came to colonize what became the United States were somehow fated to do it, that it was written into the settlers’ history before they even arrived. It’s a narrative they thought gave them a moral claim to the land, and later helped to square the inhuman treatment and murder of Native Americans with the squeaky-clean founding values of the United States.
That said, evidence for the Solutrean hypothesis is thin, and getting thinner all the time. One of the glaring snags is that the two cultures, the Clovis and the Solutreans, existed so many thousands of years apart in time. Nobody has discovered any ancient bones in Europe belonging to people of Solutrean culture, only archaeological traces, such as the objects and art they left behind. So it’s impossible as yet to connect modern-day Native Americans to Solutreans through their genomes.
Recent genetic evidence does show that almost all modern-day Native Americans have a shared lineage that can be reliably traced to people who once lived in eastern Siberia. The 12,700-year-old remains of a Clovis boy found in Montana have shown him to be more closely related to all indigenous American populations than to any other group. Raff explains that since ancient eastern Siberians were also related to the ancestors of modern-day East Asians, the obvious picture of migration is that the very earliest people to land in the Americas must have traveled through Asia and come by crossing the Pacific, not the Atlantic.
Then again, archaeology is a field in which it’s difficult to ever be certain of anything. New evidence can emerge at any time, overturning everything people thought they knew about the past. Science more broadly almost always leaves room for doubt as well. Proving something definitively wrong is unusual because it requires you to look at every possibility in the universe, and rule each one out, one by one. Sometimes this can be done—the earth is round and it rotates around the sun, we know that for sure. But when it comes to studies of the past, it’s notoriously difficult. There’s always the chance that a skull will turn up from under a plowed field, or that a fresh scrap of archaeological evidence will bubble up from the Atlantic. This space for uncertainty, sometimes so small that you need a microscope to see it, is where the controversies live. And as far as Bruce Bradley is concerned, however controversial his Solutrean hypothesis, there’s also a chance that he might be right, that history will dig up the evidence to vindicate him.
“Disproving is very, very difficult, and I don’t even like the term[s] ‘prove’ and ‘disprove,’” he says. “It’s a matter of probabilities. Is this evidence more likely to indicate this than that? And that’s the way we work all the time.” Despite my efforts to put him at ease as we speak, he gets combative, occasionally even raising his voice during our interview. “I’m not trying to make anybody believe this hypothesis. I’m just putting the evidence out there and saying what we think it means.”
Since he started working on this a couple of decades ago, Bradley has come under sustained criticism from fellow archaeologists and geneticists. One team of researchers in the United States even described his position as “Solutreanism,” implying that Bradley and those who think like him had crossed the line from science into ideology. Jennifer Raff insists that the lack of evidence linking Solutrean culture to Native Americans is itself clear evidence. “You would expect to see a bunch of other technologies,” she says. “You would expect to see cave art of the same kind, you would expect to see settlements, and you don’t see any of that.” The Harvard geneticist David Reich laughs when I ask him about the hypothesis. “The Solutrean hypothesis is a silly hypothesis. It’s totally incompatible with the genetic data on so many levels,” he tells me. “It’s just not science. It’s sharply contradicted by the science.”
The geneticist Mark Thomas at University College London agrees that the theory has only the slightest likelihood, if any, of being correct. When I raise the subject with him, he sounds surprised that I’m even mentioning it at all. “Let’s be clear,” he says. “This is not a scientifically prevalent idea at all. If you are going to measure weight of argument in terms of word count, then maybe it seems prevalent. But this is very much like saying climate change is controversial because there are lots of words written saying there’s no such thing as human-driven climate change. No.” For Thomas, this is about a handful of researchers who have become so attached to an idea that they have embarked on a “confirmation bias odyssey,” as he calls it, scouring the world for evidence while neglecting whatever doesn’t fit.
Yet Solutrean hypothesis survives, popping up online, in scientific journals, and in the odd biology book—not just surviving, but also enjoying support from those with a vested interest in its being true.
In the 2010 self-published novel White Apocalypse, white-skinned Solutreans, having crossed the Atlantic and settled in North America, are slaughtered by savages who later cross the Bering Strait and became today’s nonwhite Native Americans. The author, Kyle Bristow, a Detroit lawyer active on the political far right in the United States, makes fictional heroes of real-life archaeologists like Bruce Bradley, painting them as victims of a conspiracy by Native Americans and liberals, who don’t want to face the apparent truth that the original Americans were white.
Unsurprisingly, his book has become popular in white supremacist circles. One review stated, “This evidence could be the jolt whites need to awaken from our suicidal slumber.” When it was republished in 2013, Bristow even included what were described as supplementary materials showing the validity of the Solutrean hypothesis.
For scholars such as Jennifer Raff, this comes as small surprise. The Solutrean hypothesis speaks to a nineteenth-century worldview that painted Europeans as the true inheritors of America, as the only ones capable of civilizing the continent. At the time, evidence of sophisticated technological cultures such as the Maya, the Inca, and the Aztecs, which existed long before the Europeans arrived, were only further fuel for confusion. “Since the beginning of the Americas, there has been a question: Who are the Native Americans?” Raff says. “People actually wondered, are they humans? The first colonists did not really have a way to incorporate them into their biblical worldview. After their humanity was more or less accepted, it then became this idea that, well, are they responsible for creating the culture, the very sophisticated technologies and art and monumental architecture that we see?”
In the shock of uncovering complex ancient civilizations in the New World, the first Europeans imagined elaborate ways in which they could have gotten there. “It’s so interesting to me when I look at ideas, alternative ideas, to explain the archaeology,” Raff continues. The Solutrean hypothesis is just the latest iteration. “People are so desperate to find a non-mainstream answer to a lot of these issues. They won’t just invoke Europeans, they will invoke aliens! They’ll invoke people from Atlantis! Whatever they can find, as long as it’s not Native Americans.” The Book of Mormon, published in 1830, claimed that Native Americans were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel who migrated to the Americas around 600 BCE and had been cursed with a dark skin for slaughtering their righteous relatives.
Just because theories are exploited by the far right doesn’t necessarily make them false. Raff is quick to add that although some supporters of the hypothesis may be motivated by racism, she doesn’t believe that the researchers themselves are driven by this. “They are good scientists and they are legitimate scientists. They are very well respected.” At the same time, though, she sees a doggedness about them that sets them apart. “Everybody I’ve talked to who actually knows them personally tells me that you cannot change their minds. Nothing will change their minds. Nothing. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Solutrean hypothesis pseudoscientific, exactly. It did start out as a legitimate area of investigation, but I see it right now as being almost more ideological. I mean, people are not accepting any evidence against it. If you’re pro-Solutrean, that’s it.”
Of course, Bruce Bradley sees it differently. He tells me that Raff is “deluded, to put it bluntly.” He believes he’s been marginalized by the mainstream scientific consensus not because he is blindly clinging to a discredited idea but because he is brave enough to challenge the academic orthodoxy. As far as he’s concerned, his detractors are the ones motivated by bias. “For me, it comes down to a lot of political stuff,” he tells me. “When I first started promoting—not promoting, suggesting—this as a hypothesis, I was working in France and Spain, and different places over there. And I had very, very strong negative reactions from different people among colleagues in Spain. I think it’s colonial guilt.”
Bradley insists that his work is just good archaeology. “We’ve made it very clear all along that we’re talking about our thing as a hypothesis,” he tells me, sounding more than a little worn down. “People need to look up the definition of a hypothesis. A hypothesis cannot be right or wrong.”
The debate intersects with another recent controversy, around one of the few ancient skeletons found in North America, known as Kennewick Man. Dated around 8,500 years old, when his middle-aged bones were discovered in 1996 by college students in Kennewick in the state of Washington, researchers were quick to spot that his skull didn’t look particularly like that of other modern-day Native Americans. In fact, one archaeologist described it as looking “Caucasoid.” Of course, one way someone with Caucasoid features could have ended up here all that time ago was if some form of the Solutrean hypothesis was indeed correct, that the ancestors of the Kennewick Man had traveled across the Atlantic from what is now Europe. A reconstruction of his face—cast in off-white, although nobody knew his real skin color—even weirdly resembled the English actor Patrick Stewart, best known for playing the captain of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Meanwhile, local Native American tribes rushed to more plausibly claim him as their own, insisting that he must have been an ancestor or related to their ancestors. In their historical legends, the land on which they lived had been their home since the beginning of time. They were products of it, not migrants to it. According to this narrative Kennewick Man simply couldn’t belong to anyone else, and so, having been dug up and manhandled, he deserved a proper burial, meaning one overseen by the tribes. This call to return the remains to the tribes seemed irrational and emotional to some in the research community. A bitter court battle began, pitting scientists against indigenous groups.
The struggle over the remains of Kennewick Man wasn’t just about identity or ritual. It was also about unwrapping a dark and brutal history, in which the dreams of some people were used to override the dreams of others. In the nineteenth century Native American graves were often looted by anthropologists and hungry collectors, keen to claim their piece of this ancient culture before it disappeared, but with no respect for its traditions. These bones were rarely returned. The insults were not limited to artifacts and remains. As recently as 1990 blood samples from members of the Havasupai tribe, who have lived in the Grand Canyon for centuries, were taken by Arizona State University in the understanding that they would be used to study the people’s risk of diabetes. In the end, without their permission, the samples were also used to study other medical and mental disorders, including schizophrenia. The university agreed to pay $700,000 in compensation.
So when Native Americans defended the bones of their ancestors, they were also standing up for the rights over their own bodies. Even so, in 2002 a judge finally ruled that the bones weren’t necessarily related to any modern tribes, in large part because researchers had proposed that Kennewick Man didn’t really look like the average Native American. As Kim TallBear in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta has written, they privileged “genome knowledge claims over indigenous knowledge claims.” Despite protests, scientists were given a green light to study the skeleton.
And then, slowly, came the revelations.
Researchers in Denmark, led by Eske Willerslev, a pioneer in population genetics and ancient DNA, revealed in 2015 that Kennewick Man was indeed more closely related to contemporary Native Americans than to any other group after all. The tightest genetic link was found to be to the local Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which had originally claimed him as an ancestor. The indigenous groups had been right all along. He was one of their own as much as it is possible to be when you are separated by millennia of time.
In February 2017, under legislation signed by President Barack Obama, Kennewick Man, now known by tribes as the Ancient One, was finally laid to rest in a traditional burial near the Columbia River. The act of rewriting the story with something closer to the truth, and then returning his remains to the tribes, carried layers of significance. “A wrong had finally been righted,” a spokesperson for one of the confederated tribes told the Seattle Times when the Ancient One was buried. A fresh forensic reconstruction showed a face starkly different from the first. Like Britain’s Cheddar Man, whose facial reconstruction went from white to black in the space of a century, Kennewick Man, too, was completely different the second time around. Now he was given long hair and dark skin. The resemblance to Patrick Stewart was gone.
It was a lesson in how much culture and politics can shape how people read scientific evidence. It’s an easy mistake to project contemporary racial parameters onto the past, explains Deborah Bolnick, an anthropological geneticist based at the University of Connecticut. “If you see the genetic markers today that are found in western Europe, people will see those in the past and continue referring to them as western European, even if they’re then also found in Siberia.” It’s another “indexing problem”—when the first available body of evidence influences subsequent thinking. Western researchers tend to have more access to European data because it’s on their doorstep, so later discoveries elsewhere in the world are often interpreted relative to these. Bolnick tells me of the example of a skeleton of a four-year-old boy discovered in south-central Siberia and thought to have been buried there some 24,000 years ago. In 2013 this became the oldest modern human genome yet sequenced, and scientists learned that the boy shared some genetic variants with people in western Europe. “The way this got framed was: you have an individual in Siberia who has western European genetic markers, and so maybe this means that there was a migration from western Europe to Siberia,” she says. In reality, the more parsimonious explanation, especially given the age of the skeleton, was that it was an east-to-west movement, not the other way. In other words, people in western Europe had Siberian genetic markers.
“Underlying assumptions and ideas definitely get embedded in ways that we don’t even think about consciously, which can play out in the science,” Bolnick adds. “Data don’t say anything by themselves. We interpret data. We bring our perspectives, our framings to the data. You can use the same data to say many different things. I think modern genomic data provides the perfect example of that, because you can have different people who are all very smart and understand the data, who look at the same datasets and describe them in polar opposite directions.”
Our stories get in the way of science.
It’s impossible to escape our beliefs, our upbringing, our environment, even the pressure of wanting to be correct when it comes to interpreting the facts. Romila Thapar, an Indian historian, writes, “In contemporary times we not only reconstruct the past but we also use it to give legitimacy to the way in which we order our own society.” Jennifer Raff believes this is quite clearly in play when it comes to the Solutrean hypothesis, just as it may have been when it came to hypotheses regarding the ancestry of Kennewick Man when he was discovered. There are powerful reasons why researchers want to believe their own story is right, even when evidence declares otherwise.
The past is always at the mercy of the present.
“I remember during the Yugoslav Wars, I was in Paris.”
Kristian Kristiansen, a senior professor of archaeology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, works with ancient-DNA expert, Eske Willerslev, who carried out the investigation into Kennewick Man. Kristiansen is infectiously enthusiastic about this powerful new field of science, but as a longtime archaeologist, he also has a measured perspective on the past. He agrees that leaps in genetics have the power to overturn everything we thought we know about ourselves. They certainly challenge racial stereotypes by showing us just how much we have always mixed together throughout the past, and how much we have in common. But at the same time, he warns from his own personal experience that the political power of such insights have their limits.
In the nineties he saw this play out for himself, during violent ethnic conflicts between Serbs and Croats in the struggle for independence in the former Yugoslavia. “I was a visiting researcher and I was living in Paris together with some expelled, you could say, archaeologists from Yugoslavia,” he says. The lives of ordinary people meant little in that place at that time. In the push for territory, a program of ethnic cleansing, mainly of Bosnian Muslims, led to hundreds of thousands of civilians being forcibly displaced, women being systematically raped, and murders so numerous and methodical taking place that they rose to the category of genocide. Political leaders deliberately rewrote history to cast some ethnic groups as having a claim to certain tracts of land.
Reputable historians and archaeologists found themselves fighting an intellectual war against nationalist ideologues who wanted to justify their actions by promoting false versions of the past that suited their cause. “And nobody wanted to listen,” says Kristiansen. “That was the shocking thing. Nobody listened. And they published in newspapers; they did everything they could to get it across, but in the heat of the whole thing, they failed.” When push came to shove, truth became victim to politics. The facts mattered only if they suited the power-hungry agenda. “Suddenly things can turn from left to right in a split second when politics changes,” he says, clicking his tongue.
This wasn’t anything new. It had been seen before, most obviously earlier that same century when the Nazis pulled together whatever racial theories they could to defend the genocide of millions of Jewish people and members of other groups during the Holocaust. Then, too, mainstream scientists and archaeologists found themselves marginalized and sacked while those whose ideas favored the regime found themselves promoted and celebrated.
Bettina Arnold, a historian and professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, has researched just how gross these intellectual abuses were in the years leading up to World War II. After their country’s humiliating defeat in the First World War, many Germans were looking for ways to rehabilitate their national pride, and the search for a more glorious prehistory was one means to that end. By promising to mend this collective feeling of bruised self-respect, the Nazis managed to gather public support. Slowly, they harnessed archaeological evidence that fit their account of a great “Germanic” past. At the same time, by proving that the ancient roots of the German people were to be found across Europe, they could lay moral claim to territory beyond their own borders. In their minds, they would expand to form an empire based on the original Germanic race, which they believed itself originally stemmed from noble, light-skinned Aryans and was physically and mentally superior to all others.
Their intellectual framework came partly from the linguist Gustaf Kossinna, who had been appointed a professor at the University of Berlin in 1902 and went on to become one of the country’s most influential thinkers. By the time the Nazis came to power, Kossinna was dead. But the Third Reich had already nurtured his theories, seizing upon his argument that culture and ethnicity were wrapped up in each other. His ideas implied that when archaeologists uncovered evidence of shifting cultures, they were also seeing evidence of migration. So if they could find archaeological proof that the same cultures they could see in Germany had existed elsewhere, this would also be proof that ancient Germans had lived there, that this was also part of their rightful territory. Archaeology, folklore, and anthropology combined in service of this political idea.
The Nazis, says Arnold, were bent on “proving that there was some kind of, well we would say, genetic racial essentially commonality.” It was about expanding the boundaries of the traditional homeland using race as a rationale. This is not to say that this idea was welcomed, or even widely accepted. Kossinna was heavily criticized within his own lifetime for the quality of his work, most notably “for the kind of cherry picking that he engaged in,” she adds. “You pick certain parts of material culture that support your arguments, you ignore those that don’t. This is obviously a danger anyway in any archaeological interpretation. In his case, it was quite easy to pick holes in the arguments that he was making, and people did. Even his contemporaries did.”
Part of the reason that Kossinna was drawn to the Nazi Party as they were beginning to claw their way to power in the early twentieth century is that in them and their ideology he found support he didn’t necessarily have from his peers, mainstream historians and archaeologists. “He was a bit of a marginal figure initially early on in his career,” Arnold says. “He had been rejected by sort of the mainstream cultural historians of the day. He had a hard time finding an academic job. There is a lot of the personal bitterness.” But in the Nazi Party “he found a niche and a place where he could matter, where his work was accepted and seen as important.” Kossinna wasn’t working for the party when he first developed his theories, but he was certainly motivated by an ethnically charged worldview that became useful later on. By the end, the party turned him into an icon, a founding father for the regime.
The politics suited him as much as he suited the politics. All the way up to his death in 1931, Gustaf Kossinna was firmly on board with Nazi ideology. Many of his publications make clear that he was aware of the political ramifications of the research he was conducting, says Arnold: “He fully supported the idea that archaeology should be a handmaiden of the state.” Arnold has noted that in the first two years after Adolf Hitler came to power, eight new academic chairs were created in German prehistory. History was deliberately rewritten and appropriated by the party. The infamous swastika we associate with the Third Reich was employed after German archaeologists found the same prehistoric symbol on old German pottery. The “SS” double lightning bolt that featured on Nazi uniforms was similarly adapted from an old Germanic rune.
Everything was recast through a political prism. Archaeologists writing for mainstream journals were replaced by those who toed the party line, and Germanic cultural influence on Western civilization was intentionally exaggerated. In one bizarre instance of wishful thinking, the ancient Greeks were painted as ethnic Germans who had long ago somehow survived a natural catastrophe before developing a sophisticated culture of their own in southern Europe. The German tribal chief Hermann, who had defeated the Romans in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest almost two thousand years earlier, was dragged into service, too. Under the Nazis, his statue—erected in the forest in the nineteenth century—became a focal point for nationalist pride, a reminder of a golden age of heroism.
Gustaf Kossinna remains a cautionary figure for archaeologists, as he does for academics more widely. The problem throughout, Arnold argues, is that archaeology—with its shortage of evidence and abundance of interpretation—has always lent itself to misinterpretation. The same may be said of other scientific fields, especially when data is thin on the ground and there are plenty of people desperate to speculate on the meaning and significance of what little there is. This has certainly been the problem with race science, and the study of human variation.
Kossinna is a reminder that shaping evidence around ideology, selecting specific results to suit a narrative, or even just failure to exercise care when it comes to interpreting or presenting data can lead to disaster. Arguably, what Kossinna did was no different from how scientific information was manipulated by anti-abolitionists in the American South in the nineteenth century or by British imperialists who made the case for colonial rule by framing themselves as racially superior. But today it’s a lesson taken seriously in Germany. When the two-thousandth anniversary of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest rolled around in 2009, the celebrations were sober, with a marked shortage of volunteers wanting to play the role of the Germans in a battlefield reenactment. Most volunteers wanted to be the Romans. Showing a distinct lack of nationalist fervor, even a spokesperson for the local museum told a reporter, “I hope people in the future will take a closer look at history, question what they have learned, and review the sources.”
“There is in Germany among my fellow archaeologists a really high sensitivity towards political misuse, towards simplification,” says Kristiansen, “because they have seen the way that the Nazi regime constructed a false prehistory, by taking elements of the established prehistory and then twisting them.” For example, in 2015 the Harvard geneticist David Reich was working on a paper for publication in which he examined evidence of the very same prehistoric culture that Kossinna had once described as Germanic. A German archaeologist who had supplied the team with skeletal samples was so concerned about the same conclusions being reached about links between migration and cultural change that the Nazis had made that he and a number of other colleagues asked that their names be taken off the list of authors.
There is good reason to be cautious. In spring 2018 the prestigious science journal Nature issued an unusual editorial stating that, reminiscent of Gustaf Kossinna, “Scholars are anxious because extremists are scrutinizing the results of ancient-DNA studies and trying to use them for similar misleading ends.” It was the kind of warning that would have been unthinkable in a scientific journal a decade ago. “They worry that DNA studies of groups described as Franks or Anglo-Saxons or Vikings will reify them.” The suggestion was that people out there are actively abusing science for racist purposes. In 2018 the New York Times reported that white nationalists had been seen “chugging milk” at gatherings to demonstrate a genetic adaptation shared by many Europeans that allows adults to digest milk (a trait, incidentally, common to many nonwhite populations, too, who have historically also kept dairy cattle).
Kristiansen has witnessed this kind of racially motivated cherry picking and distortion of scientific data. “Every time we publish, it goes into the global database. And what we can see is a lot of people are sitting out there that have all kinds of blogs where they go in and reanalyze data and see if they can falsify or get other results.” He suspects some of them may be fellow academics, but others seem to be enthusiastic amateurs. From what he can tell, they are deliberately scouring the genetic and archaeological data for evidence that fits in with their pet political or racial theories. In one memorable incident he was drawn into email correspondence with a respectable Canadian sociologist with a professorship at a public university who had cited his research. As they emailed each other, it slowly became clear to him that this man had views sympathetic to white supremacists.
“Everything can be twisted,” Kristiansen warns me. “Everything.”
In the spring of 2018 a smattering of news reports began circulating in the Indian media, which could have been lifted straight from Germany in the 1930s: the Indian government had set up a committee to rewrite history.
According to the reports, this was a decision that threatened to slam headlong against established scientific and historical facts, promoting a mythical version of history that painted India’s dominant faith, Hinduism, as being central to its entire past. This particular origin story had been around for a century or so, enjoying varying levels of support among the populace, but it had become increasingly popular in recent decades, especially with the election of a conservative Hindu nationalist government in 2014. Now, it seemed, identity politics was being ratcheted into a higher gear.
Appointed by the prime minister, the twelve people on this new committee included a former senior official with the Archaeological Survey of India and the minister of culture, who was apparently keen to introduce a “Hindu first” account of history into schools. Established facts about evolution, migration, and genetics would be thrown out of the window in favor of a firmly religious narrative, one insisting that ancient Hindu texts are fact, not myths, and that those of other faiths have no claim to India.
In her book on contemporary identities in India, The Past as Present, the historian Romila Thapar explains that the idea of a Hindu homeland has its roots in the struggle against British colonialism and efforts to construct a new national identity once independence was won. Just like in Germany following the First World War, politically motivated accounts of Hindu superiority have offered ordinary Indians an opportunity to reclaim their self-respect and assert some collective pride. But in the process, India’s ancient past, which is far from fully documented, has become a tool for projecting notions of technological and cultural superiority. Some of the members of the government committee to rewrite history, like other religious nationalists, believe that India belongs only to Hindus, even going so far as to suggest that Indians have no ancestry anywhere else, not even in Africa, where our species originated. One member, a Sanskrit scholar, reportedly believes that Hindu culture is millions of years old, an order of magnitude older than our human species.
For Hindu nationalists, their ancestry and religion both tie them deeply to their land. Some have absorbed old European and American theories of an ancient, noble, pure-blooded Aryan race, and claim that these Aryans did indeed originate in India, living in the sophisticated cities of the Indus Valley Civilization in northwestern India thousands of years ago. Like the way the Nazis saw themselves, they see modern-day Hindus, particularly light-skinned, higher-caste Hindus living mainly in northern India, as direct descendants of the Aryans. It is a connection that is thought to be timeless, but also that makes them superior to everyone else on the planet. As Thapar writes, these ideologues believe that “the Aryans of India were not only indigenous but were the fountainhead of world civilization, and that all the achievements of human society had their origins in India and travelled out from India.”
It’s a version of history that doesn’t withstand much intellectual pressure. The oldest settlements to have been excavated in India, belonging to the Indus Valley Civilization of 3,000 to 1,000 BCE, confirm that the modern-day Indian population must be a result of different waves of migration, some more genetically related to Europeans, others less so, and everyone a mix. Hinduism and its cultures, too, have changed through time, and according to Thapar, bear little relation to the earliest civilizations.
But these facts don’t always seem to matter, I’m told by Subir Sinha, a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, who has been tracking the rise of extreme Hindu nationalism over the years. “All I can say is that people who used to be scientific and rational at one time will now take a view that this [account of Hindu origins] is possible.”
While certain facts are deliberately ignored, at the same time there is a desperate desire to find others that do fit the ideology. The parallels with Gustaf Kossinna and Nazi Germany are striking. For example, Indian archaeologists have been tasked with digging up evidence of places, people, and events described in Hinduism’s ancient texts. The legends include tales of demons, flying machines, and monkey-headed and elephant gods. Some nationalists say these weren’t just beautiful allegories, but hard historical details. One example Sinha gives me is that of the mystical river known as the Saraswati, which is at the center of much of the action in one of Hinduism’s scriptures. “One of the first things the government did when it came to power this time was to set up a task force to identify the Saraswati River,” he tells me. “There is a kind of will to truth. We will make this to be the truth if we try hard enough.”
Not just history and archaeology, but biology, too, must be deployed to support the myth. “They care a lot about what the scientists are doing,” adds Sinha. When geneticists release new findings about human ancestry that don’t sit well with the religious narrative, they are seen to pose an intellectual threat. It’s a problem that has already landed at the door of Kumarasamy Thangaraj, India’s leading population geneticist, based at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad. As one of the scientists who helped prove that modern Indians are the product of repeated migrations, he is well aware of the controversies surrounding the work of researchers like him. When he carried out work on Indian population genetics in collaboration with international colleagues, they deliberately decided to describe ancient migrant populations not as being African, Iranian, or Middle Eastern in origin, as they might have for accuracy’s sake. Instead, they called them “ancestral north Indian” and “ancestral south Indian,” in an effort to be politically sensitive. With this wording, they avoided upsetting those who believe that Hindus spontaneously originated in India.
“It has not come to that level where I have to argue with them. People talk to themselves. They never fight back to me or oppose my findings, but that exists,” Thangaraj tells me, diplomatically.
Even so, Romila Thapar, Subir Sinha, and other academics have expressed strong concerns about what they see happening in India. “Most of the politics of connections with land and nature and ‘we are the true people’ tends to be of a fascist, right-wing variety,” Sinha explains. “They believe that civilizations should be based on a true homeland of righteous people, which have the same religion and language.” Religious minorities, particularly Muslims, have been picked out for persecution in this increasingly charged political environment. The worst incident so far took place in early 2018, when Asifa Bano, an eight-year-old Muslim girl living in the Indian-administered part of the state of Kashmir in north India, was taken to a Hindu temple and gang-raped over a period of days before she was murdered and her dead body dumped in a forest. Two government ministers attended a rally in support of the men accused of the crime.
The barbarity of how nationalism plays out may make it feel as though facts are peripheral, that they don’t really matter, not when lives are at stake, not when young girls can be gang-raped for their faith. But for the religious nationalists, says Sinha, “the past matters a lot, for them to be confident in making the claims of greatness they want to make, claims to greatness in the world but also claims to land, power, claims to the right to show down people of other religions.” It gives them privilege over the truth, a version of their social structure that they can then sell to others. It throws weight behind the fists, it gives people the sense that what they’re doing is morally justified, because this is the order of things as they see it. This is how the world was created, and they are only bringing some of that order back to chaos.
The nationalists must turn to the past for reassurance. The past is their problem. But then, arguably, so it is for all of us, in smaller and bigger ways. When we study our genetic ancestry, aren’t we also looking for clues about who we are, trying to reaffirm a story we have of ourselves? Why does it matter to some people that their ancestors were Vikings or Egyptian pharaohs? Does being related to Napoleon or Genghis Khan make a person living today any different from the next person? When we claim ethnic or racial pride, what are we doing but trying to piggyback off the achievements of those who went before us? It’s not enough to be who we are now, to be good human beings in the present. The power of nationalism is that it calls to the part of us that doesn’t want to be ordinary. People like to believe that they are descended from greatness, that they have been genetically endowed with something special, something passed down to them over the generations.