In 2021, Peopling the Past ran a month-long blog series in April on human-environment relations. This year, we’re dedicating April to the (related) area of human migration in the past, and its implications for understanding how we came to be who we are through migration, and how we balance our ever-evolving understanding of human movement with senses of place, rootedness, and identity.
I’m excited to be writing this blog post today, as I have beside me the newly published edited volume Homo Migrans: Modeling Mobility and Migration in Human History (SUNY Press 2022) hot off the press (Fig. 1). This volume was the result of an excursus in my early career into the question of migration in archaeology: why we’re interested in it, why it’s important, and how we study it. In my own research on the spread of religious practices and ideologies between the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia, I was often called to account for the mechanisms behind the spread of imagery and deity worship – were these the result of people moving? Of ideas moving? Or were they independent developments? I often didn’t know how to answer to these critiques, and so I proposed, as a postdoctoral project for a year-long fellowship at SUNY Buffalo’s Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology, an international conference that examined how we tease out human movement in the archaeological record (Fig. 2).
The timing – 2018 – was opportune. New techniques to quickly and cheaply sequence entire human genomes from ancient DNA had been developed by labs on both sides of the Atlantic, and they had already produced some stunning discoveries about population movement in prehistory, overturning many previous assumptions based on the archaeological record alone (Kristiansen 2022). Not only were these new techniques helping to rewrite history, but they were opening up many questions about the relationships between genetics, material culture, and human identities. It soon became apparent, however, that the “hard data” provided by isotopes and genomics to understand migrations perpetuated many of the most egregious problems associated with earlier archaeological accounts of migrations that began to emerge in the early 19th century (you can read about these problems in detail here and here).
I’d like to offer, in this post, a brief history of early European archaeological accounts of migration to illustrate some of the challenges that we continue to face as we build more complex understandings of migration and mobility, and to set the stage for further blog posts in the coming month. I titled this post “Lessons from the Past”, because looking back in time to how migration emerged as a subject of concern for archaeologists alerted me to the ongoing problems we still face in interpreting the archaeological record alongside new data from genetics, and the responsibilities that come in tow with disseminating those interpretations.
A Constructivist Enterprise
The late prehistorian Andrew Sherratt noted that “prehistory is notable for the way in which it is constantly rewritten in the light of current experience.” He writes in the same article “As an undergraduate in the ‘sixties, I remember being taught that there were three basic models of what went on in prehistory: there was evolution, diffusion, and migration. . . What was not clear to me then. . . was that these were not carefully constructed scientific models at all, but that each was essentially a different metaphor, employed by a different national school of prehistoriography, and was a more or less direct projection of its own recent cultural and political history.” (1990: 4-5) Sherratt located migration in German traditions; diffusion in the British; and independent evolution in French traditions.
Sherratt’s observation is telling: our understanding of the past is written through the lens of our current experience (also known as constructivism). Perhaps this is self-evident, and even banal, but the seemingly simplistic veneer of this statement hides far-reaching implications for the ways in which the past has been employed for political purposes, whether consciously or semi-consciously. Even more dangerous is when these politically-motivated constructions of the past have been underwritten with seemingly hard scientific data. The emergence of migration as a subject of study in European archaeology is a case in point.
Deep Time, Human Diversity, and the Origins of Nations in the Early 19th Century
Figure 3 is Siccar Point in Scotland, a curious rock formation observed in the 1780s by a Scottish geologist and naturalist named James Hutton. Emerging geologists like Hutton had elaborated theories such as uniformitarianism, the idea that geological processes that happened in the past, were largely the same as those that were happening nowadays, in contrast to biblical models of catastrophism. What this meant for Hutton and Siccar Point, though, was that the biblical idea of an earth that was a comfortable 6000 years or so old just could not work: Hutton suggested that the processes underlying these curious rock formations must have taken something like 300 million years (1788).
As these ideas gradually gained traction into the first half of the 19th century, and as other disciplines like palaeontology became increasingly systematic, there was a growing acknowledgement among intellectuals in Europe that the Earth was very old and there were a lot of gaps in its history that needed filling in. Among these intellectuals, there was also a growing awareness of the diversity of humans across the globe, a diversity that needed explaining in this growing expanse of time. Many of these explanations resorted to biblical models, seeing Indigenous peoples in the Americas as being the migrating Canaanites. José de Acosta even suggested back in 1589 that the so-called Canaanites must have come to America by way of a land bridge from Siberia
Added to these realizations was the growing tendency to explain the genesis of emerging nation states in this long expanse of time. Archaeology in the early 19th century was an emerging discipline along with geology and palaeontology, which was said, in 1855 by a British traveler, to be “the link which connects geology with ethnology, giving to and deriving from them strength and assistance in the noble study of the origin of nations.” (as cited in Eskildsen 2012: 43). The first half of the 19th century was indeed an era in Europe where national identities were crystalizing in wake of both Enlightenment ideals and rampant social and military conflicts, and the study of antiquity through the establishment of national museums was one way in which these ideals were realized.
The early 19th century saw the emergence of the systematic study of artifacts to infer human behaviour in the past, particularly among Scandinavian archaeologists like C. J. Thomsen and Jens Warsaae. Thomsen wrote in 1836, “Archaeological remains, which cannot be described as true written sources, thus supplement them in broadening the limits of our knowledge of a time for which the texts are just beginning to earn our trust, and to suggest or disprove ideas about the movements of peoples or connections concerning which written history is completely silent.” (Thomsen 1836: 27-28) (Fig. 5)
Thomsen’s studies of early Scandinavian artifacts noted the gradual advancements in technologies from stone to copper to bronze to iron, and concluded that many of these advancements must have come about through migration and trade into the Scandinavian regions, for instance via the expansion of the Roman Empire. His successor, Worsaae, argued similarly for migrations as responsible for the shift from stone to bronze technologies, writing in the book The Primeval Antiquities of Denmark that “in Denmark the transition [to bronze] is so abrupt that the antiquities of the bronze period must have commenced with an eruption of a new race of people, possessed of a higher degree of cultivation than the early inhabitants.” (1849) Thomsen’s and Warsaae’s tendency to assume social change via migration and trade with more “advanced” regions proved to be a foreshadowing of things to come.
Migration and the Evolution of Societies in the Later 19th Century
There were many other intellectual developments that fed into archaeological narratives throughout the 19th century, too many and too complex to possibly sum up in a single post. A few that deserve brief mention include the rise of positivism, the belief that all knowledge can be accessed through the sensory study of the world, including the study of human societies (the discipline of sociology also emerged in this era). The models of biological evolution proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace also fed into these positivist accounts of human societies. The sociologist Herbert Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest” in 1852, utilizing the biological model of evolution as an analogy to explain social progress. These models were bolstered by comparative racial studies, and these empirical yet pseudo-scientific pursuits underscored the belief in the replacement of weaker more “primitive” races by the “superior” European ones via colonization and enslavement.
These developments combined with the increasingly accepted view of the Earth as very old allowed 19th-century European archaeologists and historians to build migration into their models of prehistory with increasing confidence. John Lubbock noted in his 1865 book, Prehistoric Times, “Assuming, of course, the unity of the human race, there can be no doubt that men [sic] originally crept over the earth’s surface, little by little, year by year. . .” (Lubbock 1871: 476) Lewis Henry Morgan wrote similarly in his 1877 monograph, Ancient Society, “Assuming the unity of origin of mankind [sic], the occupation of the earth occurred through migrations from an original center.” (Morgan 1877: 379) (Fig. 6)
Proponents of these models assumed racial differences via migration to different environments, and measured human progress along singular lines of evolution, “from savage to civilized”. The expanded title of John Lubbock’s book, after all, was Pre-historic Times as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages, while Morgan’s work was based on his three-stage model, from savagery to barbarism to civilization, He ends his statement on migrations thus: “. . . Cut off thus early, and losing all further contact with the central stream of human progress, they commenced their career upon a new continent with the humble mental and moral endowment of savages. . . undisturbed by foreign influences.” Morgan, Lubbock, and others were building from earlier assumptions about human progress of non-European groups as tied solely to stimulation from foreign influence and migration.
There were deeper inquiries into migration as a subject in and of itself as the concept of national borders that could keep people in – or out – was strengthened. The words “immigrate” and “immigrant” were added to Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language in 1829. They also appeared in John Pickering’s short vocabulary of words and phrases peculiar to the United States, where he explained “‘Immigrant’ is perhaps the only new word of which the circumstances of the United States has in any degree demanded the addition to the English language”, suggesting a conception of immigration as a permanent movement into a delineated territory. (Fig. 7)
While journal articles from the latter half of the 19th century demonstrate some discussion over how to properly account for migration in the archaeological record, the constant running assumption saw migration as an intrusion into a territory defined by cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and racial features, all of which were coterminous with one another. The systematic study of archaeological objects, linguistics, and so-called racial groups by techniques like craniometry combined to add an objective and pseudo-scientific bent to the delineation of bounded groups and the movement of groups from one place to another, and paved the way for increasingly racist and politically-motivated accounts of the origins of human societies in the early 20th century.
The Invention of Migrants in the 20th Century
The elevation of migration as an explanatory device via these methodologies in the 19th century can be witnessed particularly in cases where migrants were invented out of thin air in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A clear case is the mythical “Mound-Builders”, invented by European and American archaeologists to account for the numerous mounds and other earthworks across a number of US states built by Indigenous peoples. The “Mound-Builders” were said to be mysterious people who migrated from Europe or the Near East, sometimes the Vikings or the Israelites, who then moved into Mesoamerica or were overrun by invaders from Asia. By the early 1900s the “Mound-Builders” had been discredited, but all major innovations in pre-contact North America were still attributed to the diffusion of ideas and know-how from outside the continent, either from Mesoamerica or eastern Siberia. (Fig. 8)
The invention of migrants was witnessed in other colonial scenarios, in particular through the speculation around Great Zimbabwe, a large walled city built by the Shona and Venda peoples (Fig. 9). This speculation intensified amidst the scramble for African territories by European powers in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. Colonialists were originally pulled to the region of Zimbabwe by the promise of resources like gold, in particular Cecil Rhodes, who secured mineral rights to this region through several treaties. By 1923, the land between the Zembezi and Limpopo Rivers was established as the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. Great Zimbabwe became somewhat of an obsession for Cecil Rhodes in his colonization efforts, as it represented to him a relic of a former great empire from outside of Africa that had prospered off of the riches in this region, which underscored his own imperialist ideals. (Fig. 10)
Rhodes sponsored excavations at Great Zimbabwe, and a number of baseless accounts stemming from this research suggested that Great Zimbabwe was built by Phoenician or Arab migrants to resemble the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem. There were many archaeologists in the 20th century who were quite skeptical of a non-African origin of these ruins, but these voices were discredited and labeled conspirators by the Rhodesian government. Later archaeological accounts by David Randall-MacIver and Gertrude Caton-Thompson moved away from Phoenician and Arab migrants, but continued to assume Great Zimbabwe was the product of mass migrations, and these assumptions continued into the 1950s and 60s. Shadrek Chirikure’s, author of the recently published Reclaiming a Confiscated Past, writes, “The story that is yet to be told is that locals never doubted Great Zimbabwe’s local origin, it was only that they were never taken as seriously as knowledge producers.” (2020: 8)
The extremes of this approach came under the work of Gustav Kossinna, who equated archaeological assemblages with ethnic groups, and used archaeological material to trace migrations, what he called the “Settlement Archaeology” method. Kossinna argued for the undisturbed continuity of the Germanic people going back to the Neolithic (Die Herkunft der Germanen 1920: 29). He asserted that the roots of the Germanic peoples lay in material traces like Corded Ware pottery, and the spread of these traits in other parts of eastern Europe and Russia gave Germans an ethnic claim to these areas. He used artifacts combined with racial approaches like skull measurements to surmise that Nordic peoples bringing the Corded Ware culture migrated into these regions and overran pre-existing groups. (Fig. 11)
Through his research, Kossinna was also speaking to a longstanding German cultural metaphor of migration, that of the Völkerwanderung, a concept that first became popular under the Viennese historiographer Wolfgang Lazius in the 16th century. The vigour and purity of the Germanic people was founded in this period when the migrations from the north overran the Roman Empire. In 1933 the Völkerwanderung was called by right-wing writers the germanischer Völkersturm (the Germanic storm of peoples) (Härke 1997). This concept would become a major component of the National Socialist Party’s military and racial strategies, or Lebensraum, and underwrote the pseudo-scientific models of the Aryan race by Nazi archaeologists.
With these three examples, we see some of the most dangerous uses of migration in archaeology via the invention and demonstration of migrants using “hard scientific data” either to deny Indigenous groups agency – and in some cases their very existence on the landscape (as with the US Indigenous groups and the Shona and Venda peoples of Great Zimbabwe), or to assert the superiority of some groups (as with Nazi archaeology). These egregious uses had their roots in 19th-century beliefs about the identification of nations and racial groups through archaeological remains and the assumed cultural and technological superiority of some groups over others.
Where We Are Today
I’ve tried to show in this post that it was the generation of new scientific data, and the positivist belief in this data, wedded to metaphors that explained the genesis of the nation state and the belief in cultural, racial, and ethnic purity that made migration such a problematic topic. We’re now at a new pivot point, with hordes of new scientific data, that are pressing us to think more deeply about boundaries, identities, and connections to past populations.
The explosion of interests in DNA in many ways has further highlighted and perhaps entrenched these beliefs of ethnic purity. These assumptions are certainly perpetuated in popular culture, as we see with Ancestry’s commercial featuring Kyle, who had the sudden urge to wear a kilt and play the bagpipes when he found out most of his DNA was from the British Isles and not Germany, as he had previously believed.
The study of ancient DNA certainly has overturned many wrongful assumptions about the deep history of modern ethnic and racial categories: ancient genomes revealed Aegean and Anatolian ancestry for much of Britain’s Neolithic population, for instance, which was later almost entirely replaced by a new population around 2500 BCE with a genetic signature from the Ukrainian steppes that nonetheless continued the same burial customs as their predecessors, throwing into question the relationship between biological ancestry and material culture (Callaway 2018).
Some of the most groundbreaking work in the last decade has come about through collaboration between archaeologists and geneticists. Two independent projects released papers in 2015 in the same issue of Nature on the origins of the Indo-European speakers in Europe, who were shown to have moved from the Ukrainian steppes further south into Europe between ca. 4500 and 3000 BCE and formed a large component of the so-called “Corded Ware Culture”, originally studied by Kossinna (Allentoft et al. 2015; Haak et al. 2015). Genetics has become, in the last 10 years, such a powerful toolkit in archaeology that David Reich, one of the key geneticists in these new studies has written that “. . . human genome variation has surpassed the traditional toolkit of archaeology . . . in what it can reveal of changes in human populations in the deep past.” (2018: xx) Yet many scholars remain understandably wary of the close equation of aDNA – usually extracted from the bones and teeth of cemetery populations – with ethno-linguistic groups.
More disturbingly, the arguments that migrants from the northern steppes replaced Neolithic European populations evoked reminders of Kossinna’s racial models of Aryan migrations (Heyd 2017) – and to some white nationalist groups this discovery was met with open arms, as Susan Hakenbeck outlines (2019). Just as racial and linguistic studies combined with archaeology to give migration theory scientific respectability in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we now see the same threat with genetics and archaeology. Genetic signatures are often tied to geographical regions or even ethno-cultural groups, a problem many are trying to remedy. And the current historical milieu, with the rise of extremism and xenophobia, makes not just assumptions about migration in the past dangerous, but also assumptions about ethnic purity as being rooted in regions identified through archaeological remains and genetic signatures.
The main remedy put forth by most archaeologists so far has been obvious: don’t leave these interpretations in the hands of the geneticists. But what I’ve tried to show here is that archaeology itself has long struggled with concepts of cultural and ethnic groups and their material correlates, although a lot has been done to grow out of rigid and simplistic understandings of archaeological cultures. My own field, Mediterranean archaeology, was victim to this idea of static bounded cultures throughout much of its history, but since the 1990s, scholars increasingly adopted paradigms of postcolonialism, mobility, and interconnectivity to explain the Mediterranean as an open, interacting system made up of fluid and hybrid identities. Globalization in particular has emerged as a new metaphor, one that’s rooted in our own experiences in the 21st century, but which holds the potential to nuance our understandings of the multiple, complex, and constantly shifting identities that made up the Mediterranean, eroding older core-periphery models that once again tended to assume clear and bounded groups.
No model is perfect of course, but we can try to be as reflexive as possible in characterizing past societies. In the introduction to Homo Migrans, I argued that all of these changes, including but not limited to genetics, are helping us move into what I call a migration-centred worldview of human history. This view does not mean that people were constantly migrating, but instead sees mobility as a fundamental, constant feature of human development and adaptation: a model based on mobility is more appropriate to describe reality (as best we can) than static and bounded cultures.
In his volume, Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, Stephen Greenblatt sums up the problem well:
“The problem is that the established analytical tools have taken for granted the stability of cultures, or at least have assumed that in their original or natural state, before they are disrupted or contaminated, cultures are properly rooted in the rich soil of blood and land and that they are virtually motionless.”Greenblatt 2010: 3
Sonia Shah (2020) takes this axiom a few steps further: mobility is not simply a cultural tendency that happens from time to time, but a biological imperative of all of life on earth: it is one of the building blocks of evolution.
What I hope to have done by looking back to the 19th century was to outline this long and complicated history with conceiving of human cultures and mobilities, and the ramifications that we not only deal with in an academic setting, but in the broader public sphere as well. Migration is not merely an “event” external to societies, but one of the most fundamental components of being human
Works Cited and Further Reading
Adams, W. Y., D. P. Van Gerven, and R. S. Levy 1978 The Retreat from Migrationism. Annual Review of Anthropology 7: 483-532.
Allentoft, M. E., et al. 2015. “Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia.” Nature 522: 167-172.
Bellwood, P. 2013a. First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.
Bellwood, P. (editor) 2013b. The Global Prehistory of Human Migration. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.
Callaway, E. 2018. “Divided by DNA: The Uneasy Relationship Between Archaeology and Ancient Genomics.” Nature 555:573-576.
Chirikure, S. 2020. Great Zimbabwe: Reclaiming a ‘Confiscated’ Past. Routledge, London.
Daniels, M. J. (editor) 2022a. Homo Migrans: Modeling Mobility and Migration in Human History. SUNY Press, Albany.
Daniels, M. J. 2022b. “Movement as a Constant? Envisioning a Migration-Centered Worldview of Human History.” In Homo Migrans: Modeling Mobility and Migration in Human History, edited by M. J. Daniels, 1-30. SUNY Press, Albany.
Eskildsen, K. R. 2012. “The Language of Objects: Christian Jürgensen Thomsen’s Science of the Past.” Isis 103(1): 24-53.
Gannon, M. 2019. “When Ancient DNA Gets Politicized. Electronic document.” Smithsonian.com: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-ancient-dna-gets-politicized-180972639/, accessed July 2, 2019.
Greenblatt, S. (editor) 2010. Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Haak, W. et al. 2015. “Massive Migration from the Steppe was a Source for Indo-European Languages in Europe.” Nature 522(7555): 207-211.
Hakenbeck, S. 2019. “Genetics, archaeology and the far right: an unholy Trinity.” World Archaeology 51(4): 517-527.
Härke, H. 1997. “Wanderungsthematik, Archäologen und politisches Umfeld.” Archäologische Informationen 20:61-71.
Heyd, V. 2017. “Kossinna’s Smile.” Antiquity 91(356): 348-359.
Hutton, J. 1788. “Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe.” Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1:209-304.
Kossinna, G. 1920. Die Herkunft der Germanen : Zur Methode der Siedlungsarchäologie. Kabitzsch, Leipzig.
Kristiansen, K. 2022. “Toward a New Prehistory: Re‑Theorizing Genes, Culture, and Migratory Expansions.” In Homo Migrans: Modeling Mobility and Migration in Human History, edited by M. J. Daniels, 31-54. SUNY Press, Albany.
Lubbock, J. 1865. Prehistoric Times. Henry Holt and Company, New York.
McCoskey, D. I. 2018. “Bad to the Bone the Racist Application of DNA Science to Classical Antiquity.” Electronic document. Eidolon: https://eidolon.pub/bad-to-the-bone-617ca3e37347, accessed June 30, 2020.
Morgan, L. H. 1877. Ancient Society Or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Macmillan & Co., London.
Reich, D. 2018. Who We are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Renfrew, C. 1994. “The Identity of Europe in Prehistoric Archaeology”, Journal of European Archaeology 2(2): 153-173.
Shah, S. 2020. The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move. London: Bloomsbury.
Sherratt, A. 1990. “Gordon Childe: Paradigms and Patterns in Prehistory.” Australian Archaeology 30: 3-13.
Thomsen, C. J. 1836. Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkundskab. (Guide to Northern Antiquity).
Trigger, B. 2006. A History of Archaeological Thought, 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Worsaae, J. J. A. 1949. The Primeval Antiquities of Denmark.
Megan Daniels is Assistant Professor of Ancient Greek Material Culture in the Department of Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia. She hails from Ontario, where she completed a B.A. in Archaeology (Wilfrid Laurier) and worked for the Canadian government agency, Parks Canada, as an archaeologist. After a brief stint teaching in China and Vietnam, she completed a M.A. at the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D. at Stanford University. Before returning to Canada she taught in the United States and, most recently, Australia, where she became accustomed to having kangaroos on campus. Megan is currently working on a book on the long-term ideology of divine kingship in the eastern Mediterranean/western Asia. Her edited volume, Homo Migrans: Modeling Mobility and Migration in Human History, was recently published through SUNY Press, and she has co-edited volume on ancient religion and its intersections with data science and human science currently in press.