Genetics and Tradition: Competing Sources of Knowledge of Human History?


Genetic studies aiming to reconstruct the history of human migrations have made a claim to be able to contribute to the writing of history, with a precision and time depth unavailable to any other discipline. However, recent in‐depth ethnographic studies of genetic science have shown that folk knowledge and traditional ways to understand the difference in diverse locales around the world are integral to the way in which genetics produce knowledge of the history of humanity. Precisely because genetic projects are closely linked to sociocultural ideas about the categorisation of identity, race and ethnicity, they have raised a number of controversial cultural and political issues. Although some studies have played a positive role in helping the researched communities to reaffirm their identity, other projects yielded results that contradicted local narratives of origin. Furthermore, such studies are likely to have important sociopolitical consequences for the claims of sovereignty, auto determination and identity of vulnerable communities.

Key Concepts

  • Population genetics typically refers to the study of the genetic structure of human groups deemed to share a common history, geography or culture.
  • Haplotype maps are graphic representations of chunks of DNA that are inherited from one generation to the next, and thus are considered to be of importance for medical and anthropological genetic research.
  • Medical population genomics works under the assumption that knowledge about the genetic structure of populations will eventually translate into a more ‘predictive, preventive and personalised medicine’ in which each individual will know about their propensities and resistance to certain diseases.

Keywords: population genetics; anthropology; history; identity politics; race; ethnicity; nationalism; ancestry

Figure 1. INMEGEN's Comic Book about the Mexican Genomic Map. Comic 1, page 12. Reproduced with permission from INMEGEN's Comic Book about the Mexican Genomic Map. © INMEGEN's divulgation department (Mexico City).
Figure 2. Mass Media Representations of the Mexican Genome. Reproduced from QUO magazine. © QUO, Mexico.


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Schwartz‐Marin, Ernesto(Apr 2015) Genetics and Tradition: Competing Sources of Knowledge of Human History?. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020657.pub2]