Genetics and the Middle East

The study of ancient DNA and genetics may at first seem tangential to Iranian Studies and our work here, but has much to contribute to questions pertaining to migration, language families and Iranian nationalism. The following two volumes discuss these topics from different vantage points but both include Iran.

Burton, Elise. 2020. Genetic crossroads. The Middle East and the science of human heredity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

The Middle East plays a major role in the history of genetic science. Early in the twentieth century, technological breakthroughs in human genetics coincided with the birth of modern Middle Eastern nation-states, who proclaimed that the region’s ancient history—as a cradle of civilizations and crossroads of humankind—was preserved in the bones and blood of their citizens. Using letters and publications from the 1920s to the present, Elise K. Burton follows the field expeditions and hospital surveys that scrutinized the bodies of tribal nomads and religious minorities. These studies, geneticists claim, not only detect the living descendants of biblical civilizations but also reveal the deeper past of human evolution.

Reich, David. 2018. Who we are and how we got here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The past few years have seen a revolution in our ability to map whole genome DNA from ancient humans. With the ancient DNA revolution, combined with rapid genome mapping of present human populations, has come remarkable insights into our past. This important new data has clarified and added to our knowledge from archaeology and anthropology, helped resolve long-existing controversies, challenged long-held views, and thrown up some remarkable surprises.

The emerging picture is one of many waves of ancient human migrations, so that all populations existing today are mixes of ancient ones, as well as in many cases carrying a genetic component from Neanderthals, and, in some populations, Denisovans. David Reich, whose team has been at the forefront of these discoveries, explains what the genetics is telling us about ourselves and our complex and often surprising ancestry. Gone are old ideas of any kind of racial ‘purity’, or even deep and ancient divides between peoples. Instead, we are finding a rich variety of mixtures. Reich describes the cutting-edge findings from the past few years, and also considers the sensitivities involved in tracing ancestry, with science sometimes jostling with politics and tradition. He brings an important wider message: that we should celebrate our rich diversity, and recognize that every one of us is the result of a long history of migration and intermixing of ancient peoples, which we carry as ghosts in our DNA.