Every year ancient DNA research deepens our understanding of history a bit more, and 2018 was truly a remarkable year for ancient DNA research. By February the total number of genomes characterized from ancient individuals surpassed 1,300. I want to highlight five of what I think are the most interesting discoveries made this year
A disabled veteran and former fake news huckster has squeezed $17 million out of American conservatives with a promise to “fund the wall.” The press has covered the crowdfunding campaign, and even dug a bit into his shady prior endeavors. But I can’t find a single report really analyzing how the man behind this campaign, Brian Kolfage, is benefiting personally. He’s given an audience of disaffected conservatives, frustrated by Trump’s failures, a way to buy the feeling of a successful movement. It’s an unscrupulous way to monetize irrationality and xenophobia, and it’s going to succeed even as the campaign to fund the wall fails.
(Kolfage has sued people in the past for criticizing him. With that in mind, I’ll point out the obvious: this piece shares previously reported facts about Kolfage and his campaign, as well as my opinions based on those facts. For example, the numbers below come from the linked public sources. My conclusion based on those reported facts, that Kolfage is an unscrupulous huckster, is purely my opinion. I do not have any reason to believe that he has broken any laws.)
This was a big year for conspiracy theories. They’ve staked out more space in the headlines than we used to be comfortable with and stayed long enough that we’re starting to get used to it. The energy feeding them comes from above, as Trump and other mainstream media figures find new ways to harness conspiracy theory culture, and from below, as movements like Q Anon find ways to raise their profile with cynical self-awareness.
October was particularly gruesome. While relatively benign groups were busy ginning up new conspiracy theories for the benefit of the US and Russian governments—a bizarre flipflop of their traditional hostility to mainstream power—two men made headlines in a horribly familiar way. One murdered eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the other mailed more than a dozen bombs to Trump’s critics. They apparently both believed that Jews and liberals were plotting against them, and they decided to fight their imaginary enemies by slaughtering strangers.
These are two different expressions of the same basic phenomenon. Not every conspiracy theorist will act on their beliefs, and even fewer will become violent. But those extremists aren’t arising in a vacuum. They radicalize over time, after years of absorbing frantic, paranoid calls to action the culture that grows up around particularly invidious conspiracy theories. We can’t do much to control the bell end of violent extremists directly; only law enforcement is really equipped to do that, and unfortunately only after the damage has already been done. But going into the holidays and 2019, we—and that does include you, the reader—can do something to disarm the culture that radicalizes them.
Researchers investigated the hypothesis that the so-called “Neolithic Decline”—population decreases throughout Europe—was caused at least in part by pandemics. To do this, they cleverly made use of one feature of paleogenomics that often causes researchers to tear their hair out. When we sequence or genotype ancient DNA extractions, we get back data from all the DNA extracted from the ancient source, including large amounts of microbial DNA. This can be incredibly frustrating if you’re trying to reconstruct a genome of the human whose bone (or tooth, or hair) you’re extracting from; it can be enormously expensive to sequence enough DNA to get a whole human genome. However, in this case, the researchers were able to look at published datasets to see if they could find evidence of pathogens in DNA published from Neolithic individuals buried in a high-density passage grave in the Frälsegården cemetery in Falbygden (western Sweden).
@ArchaeOhlrau, who works on Trypillia mega-sites (which Rascovan et al. implicated in the origins of plague), did a Twitter thread on this paper critiquing some of their interpretations and providing some much-needed context. For example,
And most importantly: there are no human remains from mega-sites. Thus, their hypothesis of a plague outbreak can’t be falsified. Inhumations occur at the end of Trypillia, during the transition to burial mounds or in special contexts like the Verteba cave.
For more Forbes archaeology awesomeness, check out this story by David Anderson about the resilience of Hohokam canal builders in the face of environmental disasters:
Despite the odds, members of the Hohokam culture were able to work together to bring an agricultural lifestyle to a harsh desert environment for one-thousand years. This success required collaborative labor to maintain a system of civil infrastructure in the form of an extensive system of canals. Repeated environmental catastrophes, however, can wear down even the most prepared societies. Something people today should perhaps keep in mind.
And Kristina Killgrove tackled the fascinating question of whether or not a gold artifact was a Roman nipple cover, connecting the difficulties of interpreting the purpose of ancient artifacts without projecting our own ideas upon the past to Tumblr’s new terms of service:
In response to recent terms-of-service changes at Tumblr that ban “adult content,” many users of the microblogging site are firing back, trolling the site’s administrators with non-pornographic images that they worry will be banned by the new policy. This “ancient Roman nipple cover” posted by peashooter85 is one such image, and it has gained tens of thousands of responses in a couple days’ time. There’s one problem, though: archaeologists are unsure about that identification.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comment section or hit me up on Twitter. (Although if you see me on there too much, feel free to remind me that I should be working on my book or academic papers instead).
I am absolutely terrible at promoting my writing. I’m going to try to remedy that by posting links to my Forbes blogs regularly here.
I didn’t write very much last month (I was extremely busy with academic stuff and drafting the first chapter of my book), but usually I aim for about 5 pieces a month, covering topics in genetics and anthropology.
Would you rather I post them here as they come out, or do a monthly round-up of links? I don’t want to clog up your inboxes, and I do post them as they come out on my Twitter. Let me know what you prefer in the comments. And as always, thanks for reading!
I usually write about conspiracy theories, not for conspiracy theorists. This one is different. This is a piece for people who have been part of the Q Anon movement. Specifically, the people who are beginning to get tired of its endless empty promises, and are starting to get skeptical.
For the last year, alongside learning about the joys and challenges of new motherhood and doing my academic work, I’ve also been quietly working on a new project. That new project is finally in a place where I can share it with people: I’m thrilled to announce that last week I signed a book contract with Twelve Books !
My book (which is tentatively titled “Origin”) will be a history of the Americas, from initial peopling to the present day, through the lens of genetics. But I’m also going to use this as an opportunity to continue my blogging mission on a bigger scale: to teach people about the fundamentals of genetics, ancient DNA, and showcase stories from the remarkable work of my colleagues in the field of anthropological genetics.
I’m not just going to be talking about the science either. The news of Elizabeth Warren’s genetic testing results this week has highlighted just how interested the public is in the intersection of questions about ancestry and identity…and just how confused people are about what DNA testing results mean and don’t mean. I want to do my small part to help people understand these issues, particularly when it comes to claims about Native American ancestry, as I did earlier this week in my new piece for Forbes. And oh yes…. I will be talking about race and genetics. I may do it imperfectly, but I’m not going to shy away from that topic when it’s so critical to this present moment.
I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m a non-Native person writing about extraordinarily sensitive issues, and I am grateful for the help that many of my Native American colleagues have generously offered for this project. I’m also grateful to the many scientists (both Native and non-Native) whose research I will be featuring (if you would like to chat with me about your work, email me or hit me up at the AAPAs!).
So, if all goes well, I should have a finished manuscript in about a year from now, and a published book a little while after that. I’ll let everyone know more when we are closer to having a book (!) for you to read. Thank you all so much for your support and good wishes–they really mean the world to me.
Last week, our son Ox had an adverse reaction to the MMR vaccine. I’m glad, and I’m grateful.
First, the downside. Ox came home from daycare with a fever hovering around 100° F/38° C. That’s high enough to worry first-time parents, and it was persistent. By Friday night he’d been feverish for days and couldn’t sleep. When we measured him at 103°/39°, we finally called the pediatric nurse hotline at the local children’s hospital. The nurse was cool, calm, confident, and knowledgeable, just as you expect a nurse to be. She listened to a first-time dad ramble on about his boy’s fever and then let us know that it sounded like a reaction to the MMR vaccine he’d had the week before.
It’s possible that he simply came down with a normal fever and the timing was a coincidence. A lot of reported adverse reactions to vaccines are coincidences. But his experience closely fits the profile of a known vaccine reaction. Fevers are one of the most common adverse reactions to vaccines, affecting about ten percent of kids after their MMR shots. Our experience was worse than the typical fever; Ox spiked above the usual ceiling of 103° and it lasted a little longer than the standard two days.
Ox is fine today, but I don’t want to minimize the downside. Fevers can be dangerous, of course, leading to dehydration and other serious complications. And while Ox came through just fine, he suffered. He spent a few hot, cranky days unable to sleep or eat comfortably. That hit us, too. As new and first-time parents we don’t have a lot of perspective on what’s serious and what’s not; when the baby’s feverish for that long, it’s scary and upsetting. It also disrupts our lives; we’re very busy but Ox is our priority, so when he’s sick, it’s hard to keep all the other plates spinning efficiently.
But it’s good news, over all. Ox spiked a scary fever and spend a miserable few days waiting for it to break, and I’d have him do it again in a heartbeat. Because that fever is an indication that his immune system is responding to his MMR shot, which means he’s developing a powerful, natural immune response to dangerous diseases that could leave him deaf, sterile, or even dead.
Ox suffered an adverse reaction thanks to his pediatrician and the nurses, and I’m sincerely grateful for it. They gave him a shield against pathogens that evolved specifically to attack and ravage him, and that have seriously hurt unvaccinated kids in our community. And they helped make him into a shield in turn, protecting other children through communal immunity.
To Ox’s nurses and doctors and to all the doctors and nurses giving vaccines every day: thank you. You’re standing between our child and a world of suffering, and we’ll always be grateful—even when it causes a fever.
When I heard that Mick West was publishing a book on how to help talk people out of conspiracy theories, I said a bad word. I’m writing my own book on a similar subject, and it’s frustrating to see someone else get one out first. But I also preordered it immediately. West stands out as one of the most careful and thoughtful public figures debunking conspiracy theories, and I was eager to see what he had to say on the subject. Then I realized that if I asked for a review copy, I wouldn’t have to pay for it. (Negotiation is my specialty, remember?) Now that I’ve read it, I’m thinking of ordering a hardcopy to lend out–it’s a message that deserves to be spread.
I don’t do very many book reviews, but I jumped at the opportunity when the New York Times recently asked me to review Carl Zimmer’s new book “She has her mother’s laugh: The powers, perversions, and potential of heredity.”* As I was very familiar with Carl’s science writing, I had high expectations as I began reading, and he definitely exceeded them. This is a delightful monster of a book; 500+ pages that roam through subjects as diverse as Tasmanian devils’ facial tumors, CRISPR’d mosquitoes, and the legal system of property inheritance in ancient Rome. The theme connecting all these stories is our conception of heredity: what does it actually mean in an age of gene editing and surrogacy? (the title suggested for my review by my editor).
I found this subject personally fascinating, because I was able to connect with it strongly from the perspective of a new mother. Here is an excerpt from my review:
“She Has Her Mother’s Laugh” challenges our conventional wisdom about heredity, especially as we enter the new realms of surrogate pregnancy and gene editing. One of the most astonishing insights is that mothers don’t just pass traits to their children — they receive them as well. I read Zimmer’s book (occasionally out loud) while feeding my baby son. Like Zimmer, I had genetic counseling and my partner and I experienced the same anxieties as he did. But unlike Zimmer, I was able to assuage our fears using a drop of my own blood. That’s because my baby’s DNA, floating freely in my bloodstream, could be tested for hundreds of genetic disorders at an early point in my pregnancy. We took great comfort in the test, without realizing all of its implications. The baby wasn’t just sharing his genetic secrets during the pregnancy. Fetal cells can persist for years after birth; as I sit and write these sentences, I may very well be a chimera: a mixture of some of my son’s cells and my own. This microchimerism may even have eventual effects on my health, although it isn’t fully understood. And he may carry some of my immune cells, too.
I knew a bit about post-pregnancy microchimerism before reading this, but there’s a ton of details that I was unaware of, and now I want to go read the whole literature on the subject. Here’s a quote from the book that just astonished me:
“Fetal cells don’t simply migrate around their mothers’ bodies. They sense the tissue around them and develop into the same type of cells. In 2010, Gerald Udolph, a biologist in Singapore, and his colleagues documented this transformation with a line of engineered mice. they altered the Y chromosomes in the male mice so they glowed with the addition of a chemical. Udolph and his colleagues bred the mice, and then later they dissected the brains of the mothers. They found that the fetal cells from their sons reached into their brains, sprouted branches, and pumped out neurotransmitters. Their sons helped shape their thoughts.”
Even if that’s not been established as occurring in humans as well, that is really incredible.
Another major focus of the book that’s perhaps even more important from a social perspective was its treatment of the complex topics of heredity, biological race, and eugenics. In this regard, I think that it’s a much better book than most that I’ve read on the subject, up there with Adam Rutherford’s “A brief history of everyone who ever lived”. It’s accessible without sacrificing accuracy, contextualizing the science with history and nuance.
This book is Zimmer at his best: obliterating misconceptions about science with gentle prose. He brings the reader on his journey of discovery as he visits laboratory after laboratory, peering at mutant mosquitoes and talking to scientists about traces of Neanderthal ancestry within his own genome. Any fan of his previous books or his journalism will appreciate this work. But so, too, will parents wishing to understand the magnitude of the legacy they’re bequeathing to their children, people who want to grasp their history through genetic ancestry testing and those seeking a fuller context for the discussions about race and genetics so prevalent today.