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  • Writer's pictureLumila Menéndez

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

My recent publication seeks the urgent need to establish an interdisciplinary and multivocal debate on the study of the human past by focusing on the peopling of the Americas as a case.

The debate on the advantages that an interdisciplinary perspective has for addressing questions on human expansions and diversity started in the 1980s thanks to the publication of Greenberg, Turner II, and Zegura's paper. They combined linguistic, dental, and genetic data and proposed a three-wave model for explaining the biocultural diversity in the Americas. Despite that article receiving a lot of criticisms (I will detail them on another occasion), it opened the interdisciplinary debate for advancing further on the study of the human past.

In April 2021, a group of top experts on the peopling of the Americas met online during an invited symposium that was held in the context of the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Biological Anthropologists. Researchers working with dental and cranial variation, genetics, and linguistics joined for a lively and engaging debate.

The participation was wide and included from motivated Ph.D. students to experienced Professors. People living in South America, North America, and Europe. But most importantly, most of us have lived, studied, and acquired our degrees in the countries where we are focusing our research. This provides unique insights into the history and prehistory of the Americas. In the same line, we are all actively collaborating with local scientists in a balanced way (no parachutes science here).

At the moment in which we wrote the article, none of us explicitly recognizes ourselves as Native American, despite the well-known history of extensive admixture between Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans. Maybe the processes of invisibilization of the Native American and Afro-descendants that started 500 years ago still bias the perceptions of our identity. We all acknowledge that those voices were missing and we compromise to take action to change this situation.

During the symposium, we discussed the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges for pushing an interdisciplinary agenda. The idea of our debate was centered on going beyond the immediate recovery and analysis of data (e.g., practical, theoretical, and methodological difficulties), to consider challenges related to management, political, and ethical aspects of research.

“A theoretical framework in which different kinds of evidence can be evaluated is currently missing or not widely used.”

The discipline fragmentation and high degree of specialization prevent us from establishing interdisciplinary dialogues, as well as searching for conceptual and methodological tools for combining different data types. Additionally, the assumptions from one discipline can be opaque to other researchers when not made explicit.

Another of the worrying challenges that we identified, as pointed out by Tom Dillehay before, is that most recent studies are not discussing new evidence in relation to previous models. They are rather dismissing previous models and presenting their interpretations as new ones. It becomes crucial

that researchers state clear and testable models and/or hypotheses that integrate the biological, cultural, and linguistic domains.

We conclude with a series of recommendations to promote more interdisciplinary discussion about the processes behind the origins and diversification of Native Americans, as the figure below shows.

This is one of the articles that I enjoyed the most planning and writing, which seems to be a feeling that is also shared by my co-authors. A large number of requests for the PDF, together with the encouraging comments and reactions on Twitter from colleagues proves that a real interdisciplinary agenda is very much needed and should be a priority for the next decade.

Find the article at the following link:

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