Online Review: Book

DNA for Archaeologists

Zuzana Chovanec


By Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith and K. Ann Horsburgh. Pp. 233, figs. 23. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, Calif. 2012. $32.95. ISBN 978-1-59874-681-5 (paper).

The aim of this book is to provide archaeologists with the background knowledge on DNA analysis so that they may (1) incorporate the technique into their research, (2) communicate effectively with potential collaborators in molecular anthropology, and (3) sufficiently interpret results and address potential pitfalls. Both authors are molecular anthropologists who were trained holistically but acknowledge that with the continued incorporation of analytical techniques in anthropological research, the body of relevant literature is increasingly large, with methodological advancements occurring rapidly. The fact that the theory and practice that relates to scientific techniques, such as DNA analysis, constitute their own area of research makes it difficult for nonspecialist researchers to stay up-to-date. In that respect, this book and others that endeavor to make research techniques more approachable provide a valuable service for a discipline whose focus continues to broaden.

The book is separated into two parts. In the first, the authors cogently introduce readers to fundamentals of terminology, biological properties, and extraction techniques, providing what they refer to as “a primer for archaeologists interested in becoming critical consumers of published molecular data that address anthropological questions” (21). Chapter 1 provides a brief history of molecular anthropology and the emergence of DNA studies. Chapter 2 covers the basics of DNA and general methods of analysis and data interpretation. In keeping with the goal to aid in the interpretation of molecular data, the authors provide advice for reading scholarly articles by posing a list of questions that archaeologists should ask themselves. This important section is somewhat lacking in that it was incorporated into—but not distinguished from—a more general discussion of analytical methods. While box insets (e.g., “DNA Sequencing” [49]) accomplish this to a certain degree, the discussion would have been more effective with a more in-depth case study that applies the authors’ advice. Chapter 3 is the most practical in that it details different types and sources of DNA and provides guidelines for the collection and storage of samples that may undergo analysis in the future, as well as important steps to avoid contamination. While these guidelines are well known to archaeologists who have dealt with biochemical analysis in their research, ideally they should become familiar to all archaeologists. Equally effective is chapter 4, which highlights ethical issues in conducting research with DNA. While much of the chapter addresses broader projects concerned with documenting human genetic diversity (e.g., the Human Genome Project), Matisoo-Smith and Horsburgh aptly emphasize the social, political, and economic issues of which archaeologists with an interest in ancient DNA should be aware.

The stated goal of the second half of the book is to provide a few case studies, rather than a literature review, of the various contributions of ancient DNA studies and the archaeological questions to which DNA research has been applied. The overall organization and content of the final four chapters of the book could be improved. In chapters 5 and 6, the authors devote much space to discussing research that is overwhelmingly paleoanthropological in scope (e.g., hominin evolution, initial migrations out of Africa, the emergence of Neanderthals and their interactions with anatomically modern humans), much of which is beyond the time frame that interests most archaeologists. While certain topics (e.g., initial settlement of the Americas) are archaeologically relevant and useful in illustrating some questions that may arise in studying ancient DNA, some effort could have been made to apply those case studies to archaeological questions. For example, the chapter on hominin evolution (ch. 5) and the lengthy discussion of the distribution of genetic lineages (ch. 6) could have been greatly contracted and formulated in a way that connects this body of evidence to cases of archaeological concern. If the goal is to encourage archaeologists to consider DNA analysis in their research by highlighting its broad applications, then the authors have somewhat missed the mark. That is not to say that the discussion is not informative, but it is perhaps a bit unbalanced, considering the stated intention of the book.

Chapters 7 and 8 present numerous, more relevant, examples (e.g., domestication of animals, interactions of different populations, how comparisons between mitochondrial DNA and y-chromosomal distributions illustrate generational and population movements). In addition, there are several places where the authors list a series of topics that have undergone genetic studies, but they provide no further information. It is clear that the aim is to demonstrate the wide range of research possibilities that DNA provides. Even though it may be relevant to readers with interest in specific topics, the inclusion of a list of topics in lieu of a focused case study seems muddled and gives the impression that the book attempts to do too much. One topic to which the authors allude but never provide examples in any detail is the DNA analysis of plants. There is an increasing number of DNA studies on botanical remains and residues in containers from archaeological contexts, such as the identification of vegetables in Roman medicine (“DNA Sequencing Reveals Simple Vegetables in Ancient Roman Medicines,” Smithsonian Science [21 October 2010], the genetic analysis of Cannabis remains that were preserved in a shaman’s grave in Central Asia (E.B. Russo et al., “Phytochemical and Genetic Analyses of Ancient Cannabis from Central Asia,” Journal of Experimental Botany 59[15] [2008] 4171–82), and the detection of a DNA fragment of the principal wine yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (P.E. McGovern, A. Mirzoian, and G.R. Hall, “Ancient Egyptian Herbal Wines,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106[18] [2009] 7361–66). Chapter 8 is well organized and coherently presents a series of well-formulated case studies that pertain to individual, biological characteristics of people and that cover a set of topics and time frames of archaeological interest (e.g., determining the lineage of Ötzi; confirming Copernicus’ skeletal remains). It does leave the reader to question why it is left to the end.

Ultimately, the book achieves its goal of making DNA analysis more approachable for archaeologists. In this respect, Matisoo-Smith and Horsburgh succeed in crossing disciplines in a field that is ever widening and increasingly specialized. However, the overall impact and utility of the book could have been much improved with greater consultation or collaboration with archaeologists.

Zuzana Chovanec
Department of Anthropology
University at Albany, State University of New York
Albany, New York 12222

Book Review of DNA for Archaeologists, by Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith and K. Ann Horsburgh

Reviewed by Zuzana Chovanec

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 118, Number 2  (April 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Chovanec

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