Saturday, July 14, 2007

Long-term Continuity Supported in South America

I remember when mtDNA and Y Chromosome studies became hot in anthropology. Studies were being done faster than anyone new what to do with the data, especially the indigenous people who were being studied. Scientists and molecular anthropologists began claiming that they could tell affiliation between present-day indigenous groups and those of the ancient past. How? By looking at what are called allele frequencies in the present-day population and that of the past. Now, this process was, and continues to be, replete with problems (population size is number one often). I wrote an article on it that most molecular anthropologists didn't like. It was eventually published in the AnthroGlobe Journal.

Then I was hired to do some work for an indigenous research company. They were interested in finding out just how far these types of studies had gone. Boy were they surprised. Scientists and molecular anthropologists were making all sorts of claims, mostly focused on migration of indigenous peoples in the past or current biological affiliation between tribes (some even made the error of claiming they could determine cultural affiliation; last I knew, one's culture and their affiliation to it had little to do with genetics). I eventually wrote a book, and it has had mixed reviews. Again, those doing the studies didn't like it. Those who were being studied found it very useful. I foolishly gave it the long title of American Indian mtDNA, Y Chromosome Genetic Data, and the Peopling of North America.

So, where is this post going? Well, in the latest issue of Latin American Antiquity, one of the premiere journals for archaeologists working in South America, an article came out that claims to link ancient DNA to present-day South American indigenous peoples. Here is the title and abstract:

Ancient DNA and Genetic Continuity in the South Central Andes

Alternative models of residential mobility have been proposed to explain the development and spread of Tiwanaku influence across the south central Andes. Within the Osmore drainage, the rich Moquegua Valley has been hypothesized as the site of a significant colonization event (or events) whereby both the natural and human landscape was transformed and integrated into the expansive Tiwanaku state. In this research, the impact of altiplano colonization is inferred from temporal and spatial patterns of genetic variation within and among native groups. Mitochondrial DNA haplogroup frequencies are used as the measure of genetic variation. The haplogroup data are determined for Moquequa Valley archaeological samples (Chen Chen site; A.D. 785-1000) and are compared to published data from 58 other ancient and contemporary native groups. The results support temporal and spatial genetic continuity in the south central Andes for the last 1,000 years. Contemporary Aymara speaking groups are exceptions to this pattern, perhaps because of recent population decline. While the altiplano colonization hypothesis is not rejected, moderate gene flow and relatively large population sizes likely characterized much of south central Andean prehistory regardless of the contribution from Tiwanaku colonization events.

So, what does this confusing abstract really mean? It means that in the south central Andes the populations in prehistory were large enough to mitigate any genetic impacts from migrating newcomers. That is, because the people of the south central Andes had enough resources in their area, they could live there for thousands of years, and that other groups that migrated in (or that even just shared relations with people of the south central Andes) were absorbed into the overall population, at least genetically.

How fine grained is this study and its conclusions. Like many genetic studies that infer something or other about the past and present-day indigenous peoples, one has to look at what the inference is based on. In this case, not much, but more than the older studies. The authors provide us with their "n" (number of individuals whose genetic frequencies were studied and compared). The largest sample used to define a population is 172 Aymara individuals. The smallest consists of only 8 Toba individuals. Most of the other 57 populations range between 15 and 40 individuals per population group. Pretty small number of individuals to define a population! Likewise, because this study, like all academic studies, is built off of citing other works, the researchers of this study actually did very little in terms of procuring their own samples. Rather, they got most of their "data" from previously published studies, some dating back to the nascent period of molecular genetics (the early 1990s).

Indigenous peoples around the world should be aware of just what is going on here. Biological affiliation is being determined across space and time by simple looking at a handful of individuals. Let me illustrate. Say I was a present-day indigenous person. If my mother (and only my mother since the researchers were using mtDNA, which is only transferred via the mother), or my grandmother, or my great great grandmother was not part of the original handful of people used to define the ancient "population", it is very likely that I would be considered biologically unaffiliated! This gets even further complicated because of the use of previously published data (common in academic circles). So if the first study published results, and those results happened to be skewed because of sample size, early techniques that are now considered faulty, mis-categorization of the sample individuals (i.e., claiming that they are Ticuna when really they are Wayuu or something similar), or the like, then future studies are going to be off.

Don't get me wrong, I think this study did an excellent job based on the data it used, and I think their inferences are fairly accurate based on the paradigm they were set. But these sort of studies should be closely examined. Indigenous peoples need to know that their history is currently being rewritten (again, archaeologists already did it once). There are thousands of samples of blood in freezers around the world that can be used in these sorts of studies. In all molecular anthropological studies, caution needs to be heeded. Proclamations of biological affiliation can have long-term consequences for indigenous peoples, consequences that are often not anticipated by the researchers. I just hope that we can educate the public about these studies and what they really evidence before another mixup in biological versus cultural affiliation takes place.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Native American youth and alcohol

Alcohol has long been an issue with indigenous peoples around the world. Most cultures had some form of alcholol prior to its modern introduction in the form of hard liquor, but the indigenous forms of alcohol were usually not as strong.

Applied social scientists and indigenous leaders have been trying to work with the problems associated with alcohol in the modern world. One persistent problem, however, is how indigenous peoples are still portrayed, and how their problems with alcohol are dealt with. A recent article by Rhonda Ramirez highlights an approach with promising results.

Ramirez, Rhonda. (2007). Native American Youth and Alcohol: Wellness and the Red Road. The Applied Anthropologist, 27(1): 86-93.


The relationship between Native American youth and alcohol is a leading health and educational problem. An interpretive perspective shaped by critical hermeneutics recognizes and accepts the challenge to come up with solutions. To shift from a deficit-based model of cure that is emphasized in Western medicine to a perspective of care and hope may aid in better understanding Native American adolescents. The path of the Red Road encompasses tribal identity and traditions as a means of gaining and maintaining balance and harmony with the world. Savage and uncivilized iconography attached to Native Americans since the arrival of non-natives is not dissimilar to that associated with other indigenous peoples around the world. One significant shift in approach would be to highlight adolescent success and to move the public away from negative messages and punitive attitudes.

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