Anna Källén

Code, Narrative, History: Making Sense of Ancient DNA in contemporary culture

Archaeogenetics—the usage of molecular-genetical methods to analyse DNA from ancient humans and animals—is an expanding research field which has received substantial funding and enjoyed much public attention in the past years. Despite the growing interest in archaeogenetics, there is no research on the processes through which historical narratives are created from DNA codes. A DNA code consists of a series of tiny lines without significance. To become meaningful, these series must be compared to other series and described with words (like ”Arab” or ”multi-culture”). But how can we understand the processes through which DNA code is translated into historical narratives? Are these narratives formed by researchers, museums and journalists, or through interaction between these, and other, actors? This research project investigates how wordless DNA-codes are translated into historical narratives. A research team including an archaeologist, a media historian and a historian of ideas follow three archaeogenetic research projects in France, the United Kingdom and Sweden, and analyse the historical narratives which can be connected to the findings of these projects. Through international comparisons, it investigates if and how such narratives are related to the politics, national narratives and traditional historiographies of each country. The project contributes with crucial new knowledge on the interaction between natural science, the humanities, media and popular science.
Final report
In the years 2018–2021, the project Code Narrative History: Making Sense of Ancient DNA in Contemporary Culture has investigated how historical narratives are formed in and around archaeogenetic research. Archaeogenetics (also paleogenetics, or paleogenomics) is a rapidly growing research field, which in recent years has had a strong influence on the knowledge of human evolution and has presented popular media with striking stories of prehistoric individuals and societies. The stories often rely on DNA as hard evidence, and are presented as if they emerged out of the code itself. DNA, however, is a molecule. It has no meaning, and it tells no stories. The meaning of stories based on ancient DNA (aDNA) thus have to be created by someone, or be taken from somewhere. With this simple fact as a point of departure, the project set out to map, analyse and explain how academic and popular knowledge on aDNA is created; where the elements of the narrative come from; which actors and ambitions are driving the narration, and to what effects. A key question was to what extent meaning making around archaeogenetics was influenced by national context, with national history writing and specific definitions of national identity in terms of race and ethnicity. Therefore, the project was initially designed around three comparative case studies of archaeogenetic projects, in Sweden, France, and the UK.
During its course, the aim and purpose of the project has developed with more detailed questions and specific studies. One was a set of questions that concern the relations between disciplines in the humanities (like archaeology) and science (like genetics) when they meet in a common enterprise such as archaeogenetics – or, for that matter, in our project. How are common results formulated, and meaningful stories created in such a meeting between disciplinary practices and traditions? What asymmetries can be discerned , and what are the consequences? (see the articles ‘Petrous Fever’ and ‘Lost in Translation’). Another example was the question of how historical identity is formed by consumers of genetic ancestry tests (see the article ‘I am a Viking!’).

The project has been pursued by a team of four researchers: Anna Källén (PI), Associate Professor of Archaeology at Stockholm University; Charlotte Mulcare, PhD in population genetics in Chester, UK; Andreas Nyblom, Associate Professor of Media History at Stockholm University; and Daniel Strand, PhD in History of Ideas at Uppsala University. There has been a outspoken ambition to close collaboration in joint investigations and co-authored articles, which has characterized the project’s outcomes and results.
In the first two years, the project largely followed the time schedule set out in the funding application, with studies of meaning making around ongoing aDNA projects in Sweden and France. In addition, there was from early on an added interest in archaeogenetics in the United States, which was not included in the original application. This was motivated by the fact that the majority of the debate in archaeogenetics has been linked to the United States, and that some of the most prominent actors in the field are based there. To further our knowledge on the US situation, the research group attended an aDNA conference at Brown University in February 2019. The conference gave information and made impressions that had a clear impact on the rest of the project.
The Covid-19 pandemic appeared halfway into the project, and has characterized the work over the last two years. Part of the original research plan, with a method based on site visits and in-person interviews, could not be carried out in the UK, which was the last of the three case studies. Instead, the investigation was broadened to a global perspective and more general issues of research communication and meaning making in archaeogenetics (see, for example, the articles ‘Petrous Fever’ and ‘Transcending the aDNA revolution’, and the introduction to the volume Molecular Mirage). Semi-structured interviews have remained a key method, but have instead been conducted on Zoom. Workshops and meetings within the research group have also largely been held on Zoom. This has of course limited the project’s opportunities for close internal collaboration, and it has also limited the opportunities to communicate research results through international lectures and conferences. At the same time, the Covid-19 situation has forced us to alternative solutions that have also had positive effects. The project’s international symposium Code, Narrative, History: Critical Perspectives on Ancient DNA (https://conahi.wordpress.com/2021-symposium/) was organized as a Zoom webinar on 11–12 May 2021. It opened for participants from around the world, who would not have been able to attend if it had been held as planned on site in Stockholm.

Code Narrative History is the first comprehensive research project ever to investigate how meaning is formed around aDNA. The project has thus, as promised in the research application, been able to contribute with significant new knowledge about the epistemological foundations and ethical consequences of current aDNA research. The three most salient results of the project are:
1. Empirically and analytically founded conclusions that meaningful narratives about aDNA are created through complex interactions between researchers, journalists, and other actors in popular media, where the researchers play a central role. DNA is used in these stories primarily as a sign of proof and certainty, while fundamental narrative elements are taken from previous archaeological research, political debates, and popular culture (for example ‘Archaeogenetics in popular media’, ‘The Lagertha complex’, ‘Twitter tales’ and ‘The Sigtuna debacle’).
2. An in-depth knowledge of the use of the concepts of race, ethnicity and national identity in archaeogenetics; its historical roots and potential political consequences (for example ‘0.01%’ and ‘The Sigtuna Debacle’).
3. The identification of profound problems and challenges in the relation between archaeology and genetics, which characterizes not only internal research practices but also meaning making around aDNA. Our own project design, with three researchers in the humanities and one in science, has contributed to creative friction and constructive discussions with new insights into fundamental differences between scientific and humanistic perspective on DNA. It could be the meaning of key concepts and significance of analysis results, which lead to misunderstandings and in the worst case harmful communication (see ‘Lost in translation’), but also concerns ethical issues surrounding ancient human remains and politically potent presentations of research results. The project could conclude that a marked asymmetry in the relationship between scientific genetics and humanistic archaeology has thus far hindered an urgent critical conversation about the potential political, social, and ethical consequences of archaeogenetics (see ‘Transcending the aDNA revolution’, and ‘Petrous Fever’).
In addition to these overall results, the project’s most noticed study to date is a discourse analysis of the conceptualization of Viking identity among customers of genetic ancestry tests, published in the article ‘I am a Viking!’ in New Genetics and Society, with a popularized short version in The Conversation. The article has attracted much media attention, has been used in university teaching in Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and Sweden, and has been covered in a number of radio interviews in Sweden and Australia.
The project’s most extensive, and likely to be the most important, study is accepted but not yet published in Current Anthropology, as a major article with the title ‘Petrous Fever’. It is based on 60 questionnaire responses from archaeologists and museum curators worldwide and 16 follow-up interviews with archaeologists, curators and journalists, and analyses their experiences of the rapid development of aDNA research in relation to previously published ethical guidelines.

Given the great international research interest in aDNA and the cutting-edge character of our project, and considering the great general interest in issues concerning DNA, history and identity, we have chosen to focus on two main ways to communicate our research results.
First in the form of scientific articles and a special issue in leading international research journals (Current Anthropology, New Genetics and Society, and Journal of Social Archaeology), as well as an edited volume and a monograph for a major university publisher (The University of Chicago Press). With that strategy, we have wanted to give maximum credibility, spread and attention to the results within the research community. This has also meant a concentration of our academic reporting to a few high-quality products.Before Covid-19 restrictions prevented travelling and conferences, the project’s outlines and results were presented to academic audiences in lectures and seminars at Stockholm University, Uppsala University, Linköping University, Umeå University, Örebro University, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, Cornell University and Stanford University.
Secondly, we have broadly communicated and discussed the project’s results with the general public – in our own texts (in The Conversation, Eurozine, Tidskriften Respons, Fronesis, and Dagens Nyheter), and participation in podcasts, radio interviews and public debates (see Popular media and debate, under Publications) .
All research results published so far are available Open Access. In addition to the completed or contracted publications listed below, there are a number of more or less completed texts that will be completed and published after the end of the project.
Publication list
MONOGRAPHS

Källén, Anna. Forthcoming. Ancient DNA: What it is and what it isn’t. Contract signed with The University of Chigaco Press.

EDITED VOLUMES

Anna Källén, Charlotte Mulcare, Andreas Nyblom & Daniel Strand (Eds) 2021. Special Issue: aDNA, Journal of Social Archaeology 21(2). https://journals.sagepub.com/toc/jsa/21/2

Daniel Strand, Anna Källén & Charlotte Mulcare (Eds) Forthcoming. Molecular Mirage: Crititical Perspectives on Ancient DNA. Edited volume with chapters by: Erika Hagelberg; Marianne Sommer & Ruth Amstutz; Charlotte Mulcare & Mélanie Pruvost; Amade M’charek; Andreas Nyblom; Venla Oikkonen; Magnus Fiskesjö; and Stewart Koyiyumptewa, Amanda Cortez, Deborah Bolnick & Chip Colwell. Complete ms submitted and under contract review for The University of Chicago Press.

ARYICLES IN PEER-REVIEW JOURNALS

Anna Källén, Andreas Nyblom, Charlotte Mulcare & Daniel Strand 2019. ”Archaeogenetics in Popular Media: Contemporary Implications of Ancient DNA”, Current Swedish Archaeology 27, 69–91. https://doi.org/10.37718/CSA.2019.04

Anna Källén, Charlotte Mulcare, Andreas Nyblom & Daniel Strand 2021. ”Introduction: Transcending the aDNA revolution”, Special Issue: aDNA, Journal of Social Archaeology 21(2), 149–156. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1469605321996119

Strand, Daniel & Anna Källén 2021. ”I am a Viking! DNA, Popular Culture and the Construction of Geneticized Identity”, New Genetics and Society 40(4), 520–540. https://doi.org/10.1080/14636778.2020.1868988

Anna Källén, Charlotte Mulcare, Andreas Nyblom & Daniel Strand, forthcoming. ”Petrous Fever: The Gap Between Ideal and Actual Practice in Ancient DNA Research”. Accepted after peer review as major article for Current Anthropology. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/loi/ca

Charlotte Mulcare & Anna Källén, forthcoming. ”Twitter Tales: Where ancient DNA meets social media”. Ready to be submitted for review for Public Understanding of Science.

OTHER ACADEMIC ARTICLES

Källén, Anna, in press. ”The Sigtuna Debacle: A story of ancient DNA, immigrants, and fake news in a Viking Age town in Sweden”. In: Niklasson, Elisabeth (Ed.) Polarized Pasts. London: Berghahn Books.

Mulcare, Charlotte & Mélanie Pruvost, forthcoming. ”Lost in translation: Interdisciplinary challenges in aDNA”, In: Strand, Daniel; Källén, Anna & Mulcare, Charlotte (Eds) Molecular Mirage: Crititical Perspectives on Ancient DNA.

Nyblom, Andreas, forthcoming. ”The Lagertha complex”. In: Strand, Daniel; Källén, Anna & Mulcare, Charlotte (Eds) Molecular Mirage: Crititical Perspectives on Ancient DNA.

Strand, Daniel & Anna Källén, forthcoming. ”Molecular mirage: An introduction”. In: Strand, Daniel; Källén, Anna & Mulcare, Charlotte (Eds) Molecular Mirage: Crititical Perspectives on Ancient DNA.

POPULAR ARTICLES

Källén, Anna 2018. ”När streckkoder blir identiteter och berättelser”, Tidskriften Respons 2/2018. http://tidskriftenrespons.se/artikel/nar-streckkoder-blir-identiteter-och-berattelser/

Källén, Anna 2019. ”Genetikens löften följs alltid av en skuggsida”, Tidskriften Respons 1/2019. http://tidskriftenrespons.se/artikel/genetikens-loften-foljs-alltid-av-en-skuggsida/

Källén, Anna 2020. ”De första svenskarna: Arkeogenetik och historisk identitet”, Fronesis 66–67/2020. https://fronesis.nu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/FR06611.pdf

Strand, Daniel 2020. ”0,01 procent: Genetik, ras och åtskillnadens metodologi”, Fronesis 66–67/2020. https://fronesis.nu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/FR06612.pdf

Strand, Daniel 2021. ”0.01%. Genetics, race and the methodology of differentiation”, Eurozine.com 1 January. https://www.eurozine.com/0-01/

Strand, Daniel 2021. ”0,01%: Genetika, rasa in metodologija diferenciacije”, Sobodnost (Slovenia), 1-2/2021. https://www.eurozine.com/001-2/

Strand, Daniel 2021. ”0,01%: Genética, Raça e Metodologia de Diferenciação”, Translation by Matheus Lock. Dystopia (Brazil), 6/2021. https://dystopiamag.com/001-genetica-raca-e-metodologia-de-diferenciacao/

Källén, Anna & Daniel Strand 2021. ”Viking DNA and the pitfalls of genetic ancestry tests”, The Conversation 9 April 2021. https://theconversation.com/viking-dna-and-the-pitfalls-of-genetic-ancestry-tests-155809

POPULAR MEDIA AND DEBATE

7 July 2018. Anna Källén and Daniel Strand in panel ”Fanns svensken på stenåldern?: Arkeologi, DNA och nationell identitet”, Almedalsveckan, Visby. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3RyK-oMvhM

21 May 2019. Andreas Nyblom at Bildningspodden: ”DNA”. https://anekdot.se/bildningspoddavsnitt/dna/

15 June 2020. Daniel Strand: ”Se upp när DNA och identitet blir en handelsvara”, Dagens Nyheter,. https://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/daniel-strand-se-upp-nar-dna-och-identitet-blir-en-handelsvara/

12 October 2020. Anna Källén in public debate on ancient DNA at Arkeologiforum, organized by Populär arkeologi, Stockholm.

5 February 2021. Anna Källén in Vetenskapspodden, Sveriges radio. https://sverigesradio.se/avsnitt/1666912

24 March 2021. Anna Källén in Forskarliv on Vetenskapsradion, Sveriges radio. https://sverigesradio.se/avsnitt/1692844

31 March 2021. Daniel Strand in Studio Ett, Sveriges radio. https://sverigesradio.se/artikel/kritik-mot-dna-tester

27 April 2021. Anna Källén in Vetenskapsradion historia, Sveriges radio. https://sverigesradio.se/avsnitt/1712974?fbclid=IwAR1iocrIj8gRMlwLUL1SKmAOVSYIGizlaDJM6irsDPNGPhaCcDiCVafSBuA

16 May 2021. Daniel Strand in Sunday Extra, ABC Radio Australia. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/why-do-some-people-claim-viking-dna/13342618

PROJECT WEBSITE

https://conahi.wordpress.com
Grant administrator
Stockholm University
Reference number
P17-0574:1
Amount
SEK 7,793,000.00
Funding
Projects
Subject
Cultural Studies
Year
2017