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Archaeogenetics

The newish field of Archaeogenetics studies DNA recovered from archaeological sites, cultivated plants, domesticated animals, or from living humans. Through such analysis it has become possible to say useful things about the way we have migrated about our planet and altered our environment.

The archaeologist Colin Renfrew coined it in 2000 in a book that he edited with Katie Boyle: Archaeogenetics: DNA and the population prehistory of Europe. The word itself is still largely the preserve of academic specialists, but the ideas behind it have had masses of attention in the press.

Work with human DNA is sometimes instead called genetic genealogy or historical genetics. Some of our DNA can remain unchanged for generations and can give clues about our origins. Men in Orkney have a Y chromosome similar to those of modern Scandinavians, which suggests that the Vikings who colonised the island may have wiped out all the male members of its previous Pictish population. One gene often gives its owners red hair and was common among ancient Britons; invasions by non-redheads later pushed them to the margins, which is why that colouring is especially common among Scots and Irish.

The idea that through analysis of one’s DNA it may be possible to deduce something interesting about one’s ancient family history is intriguing to anyone who has ever had an urge to find out who they are by investigating their forebears.

There is one area of human research which benefits from their continued existence: archaeogenetics. It refers to the application of molecular genetics to the study of the human past.

Western Mail, Cardiff, 25 Feb. 2006

Such a revelation demonstrates the power of archaeogenetics ... in which modern Britons explore their Celtic, Viking and Anglo-Saxon origins.

Observer, 31 Dec. 2006

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Jan. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-arc2.htm
Last modified: 13 January 2007.