On Wednesday 7 December, CitiGen and ArchSci2020 (a new Marie-Skłodowska Curie network) organised a workshop on the use of palaeogenomic data at the University of York. The first speaker of the day, Hannes Schroeder (CitiGen/University of Copenhagen), gave an overview of recent developments and perspectives for future research in the field of palaeogenomics, covering the identification of population sizes, the detection of signs of selection and the spread of pathogens. Dan Bradley (CitiGen/Trinity College Dublin) focused on human palaeogenomics, highlighting the dangers of projecting modern population configurations into the past without appreciating the differences in genetic landscapes. In her talk, Sarah Abel (CitiGen/University of Iceland) addressed the uses of genomic data by genetic testing companies and the ways in which they communicate with their customers.
The presentations were followed by a panel discussion. Gísli Pálsson (CitiGen/University of Iceland) raised the issue of how recent ancient DNA studies – which have highlighted early mixtures between Homo sapiens and other hominid species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans – might lead to a blurring of the lines in relation to how we define and demarcate the classification of “human”.
Sarah Rees Jones (historian, University of York) underlined the complementarity of palaeogenomics and the humanities, pointing out how historians and other humanities scholars could offer perspectives on the fine-scale movement of people that might be out of reach for geneticists. Brian Donovan (Eneclann, CitiGen Associated Partner) also suggested that these approaches could be complementary, and considered palaeogenomics particularly appealing to genealogists, because the field may compensate for the lack of archival data in early periods of history.
Jerome de Groot (English and American Studies, University of Manchester), however, raised concerns about the ways in which data was shared with the public, wondering how far we can go as researchers without properly theorising the position of genetic data as a form of memory and its implications. Nonetheless, other members of the panel disagreed with the idea that genetic data should be considered as fundamentally different from other types of historical data, with some stressing the potentially positive implications of genetic tools becoming more readily available to the public, as an aid to family history research.