Alice Roberts, one of the UK’s leading public scientists and President of Humanists UK, talks to our editor Samira Shackle about what we can learn from the burial sites of the earliest Britons, as explored in her new book Ancestors. What does our prehistory – cannibalism and all – tell us about who we are? How does the way we mark death illuminate our perspective on life? And how are genetics and archaeology shaping each other today? Plus, Alice tells Samira how she came to be a humanist, and discusses the value of storytelling and science communication in our pandemic age, and beyond.
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Hosts: Samira Shackle and Niki Seth-Smith
Executive producer: Alice Bloch
Sound engineer: David Crackles
Image: Photo by Dave Stevens, artwork by Ed Dingli
Hi and welcome to With Reason with me Samira Shackle…
…and me Niki Seth-Smith.
With Reason is where we meet people in fields like philosophy, science and culture whose work and ideas challenge dogma and lazy thinking. That's the place to consider questions of reason and unreason. belief and disbelief, critical thought and debate and today it's a place to think big about who we are and where we've come from.
And in this series, we're talking to people like the physicist Carlo Rovelli about the nature of reality and science writer Lucy Jones about wilderness and wellbeing. But today we're with the anatomist and biological anthropologist Alice Roberts, discussing our prehistory. Samira, I'll be listening in and back with you later for a bit of a chat. But it's over to you for now.
Yeah, so Alice Roberts is an academic and author and a broadcaster. I think lots of listeners will have already heard of her because I don't think it's any exaggeration to say she is one of Britain's most well-known contemporary scientists. She's been a regular fixture on TV and radio for the last two decades, starting with Time Team on Channel Four, back in 2001, where she was a bone specialist.
Alice first trained as a doctor before specialising in the crossover between human anatomy and archaeology and history. And she's published numerous books as well as presenting popular TV and radio shows about science. She's also a Professor of Public Engagement with Science at the University of Birmingham. And she has been vocal about her atheism. She's currently the president of Humanists UK. So her research combines biology and anatomy with archaeology and anthropology to shed new light on ancient history.
And that's something that she does in her new book Ancestors, which zooms in on seven burial sites in Britain, to explore what new science can tell us about the bodies that are found there and the context in which they lived. Underpinning much of that new science are developments in, and collaboration between ,the fields of genetics and archaeology. So I started by asking her about how these two seemingly very different fields are shaping each other.
It's just a really exciting time at the moment. So genetics has been able to give us some information about the deep past and particularly about humans in the deep past for probably 20 years. And we're basically looking at the same techniques that are used to look at the DNA of living people. But now that's applied to people that have been dead for an extremely long time, in some cases, and due to advances in being able to extract DNA from very ancient bone, and then essentially, to be able to reconstruct the genome from that, but also actually advances in how fast you can sequence the genome, with just getting rich information coming through now. And we've also moved beyond – just every 10 years ago, I made a series for the BBC called The Incredible Human Journey, where we looked at Palaeolithic migrations that basically, it was the story of the origin of all species in Africa, and then the emergence of our species and the migrations - it's a tricky word migration, because we tend to think about it as journeys during someone's lifetime – but over generations, you get these migrations, which took people to colonise the entire world. And you know, that all happened in the Palaeolithic, in the Old Stone Age. And the evidence for that comes from not only your traditional, I suppose, archaeological sources, but now we've got this genetic strand of evidence as well.
And so back then, when I made that series, we were looking at the available genetic evidence, and a lot of it was in terms of small stretches of DNA, or particular focuses that people had looked at, I suppose. Then the next step was to use genome-wide analyses, which looked at particular points in the genome, where we knew that there were likely to be changes, likely to be mutations. But what geneticists are doing now is reading whole genomes, you know, sort of from cover to cover. And it's just extraordinary, it's really fast.
So I'm involved with this fantastic new project at the Francis Crick Institute in London, which is the 1000 Ancient Genomes Project, which is focusing on British genomes from the deep past. And that will contribute enormous amounts to our understanding. So it's just getting really exciting. Some of the big questions that we haven't really been able to tackle before, or at least, you know, we've only been able to look at them in a very skewed way, have been questions like, you know: when the Neolithic happens – which is the period in time when we see farming appearing and then spreading – when that arrives in Britain, are we just looking at people picking up ideas, you know, have we got a few people coming over from the continent with seeds with livestock, and that idea, catching hold and spreading? Or are we looking at a big wave of migration? And I think we can reasonably robustly say “no, it's a big wave of migration”, because we've got the genetics, we can see that the genes, the DNA of people, once you get into the Neolithic is different from the people that were there in the preceding Mesolithic.
And we're seeing that quite a bit. So we're seeing lots of waves of migration. I think it will work the other way as well. So I think there'll be periods where we think there's been a migration, and we look at the genetics and go, “Oh, doesn't seem to be many people coming over”. And a good example of that, at the moment, (although we've got a lot more data to come in on that) is the Anglo Saxon period, you don't seem to be saying they were told by the history is that there was some massive invasion of Anglo Saxons and doesn't really seem to stack up genetically at the moment.
That’s fascinating. But one thing and probably quite a basic question, I guess, is, you know, we've got this huge wealth of new information becoming available, as you've explained, but what's the kind of appeal to you, of studying prehistory, and getting that that kind of information about these events of the faraway past? Particularly in a time of such perpetual crisis, where we can struggle to keep up with even contemporary events, what can we learn from the ancient past?
Yeah, I think that's a really interesting question. I suppose, for me, it is very pertinent to the here and now, because what we see, you know, through great swathes of time, is the human experience. So, you know, we see people battling with disease outbreaks, we see, you know, what happens to society. So particularly thinking about events over the last 18 months, in Britain and globally, you know, this isn't the first time that humans have faced a terrible challenge in terms of a dreadful infection. And so we learn a lot by looking at how people responded to that in the past and how society changed. Actually, that’s really interesting, looking at, particularly, how society changed after the Black Death, for instance. So I think that there's always for me, contemporary resonance.
And also, the other thing for me is that I feel very much that it's rather like that idea that you should travel and you should experience other cultures, because that makes you look at yourself in an objective way. And it makes you look at your own culture in an objective way. And it also makes you realise that you have this commonality with humans the world over, you know, that we're all very, very similar.
Absolutely. And some of that, I guess, is about how it's communicated. And how these, you know, quite complicated scientific developments are put across to the public, which I guess is something that you think about, both in your books and your broadcasting. And I know you're, you're a Professor of Public Engagement with Science as well. One thing I wondered about, I think we hear a lot about the failings of the media, in reporting on science, you know, that this idea of crushing nuance or not fully understanding the peer review process, and so on. But I wondered what scientists can get wrong in communicating with the media. So what’s the kind of flipside of that?
Just to kind of pick up the earlier part of your question: a lot of what I do is looking for stories, and it feels quite archaeological. So when I'm writing about ancestors, I'm basically looking for the best stories. So I'm not, it's not fiction, I'm not creating, those stories already exist. And it's a question of finding them, and then bringing them together in a way that they form a larger saga, I suppose. And I really enjoy that. And I enjoy that in teaching as well.
And I think that, you know, every teaching activity that I plan and deliver with my students, I think about in a similar way, I'm telling them a story. And that's, that's how we imbibe information as humans. Anyway, you know, rather than just assembling a list of facts, telling a story, and it's not about packaging, it's actually much deeper than that. And I think that storytelling is something which is sometimes overlooked or considered to be superfluous and something around the edges of the science, rather than actually embedded within the science.
I would say a scientific hypothesis is a story about how the world works. So that's a more kind of philosophical take on it.
Yeah, there's something I noticed in your book a lot, actually, is just the importance of narrative. And yeah, the way that that brings the science to life for a non-scientist. But as you say, also does seem quite integral to it.
Yeah. I mean, that's something I've learned over my career. And I've particularly learnt it through getting involved in broadcast media. So some of the best kind of continuing professional development I've done has been in terms of teaching and university, has been doing public engagement in other ways. And particularly doing broadcast work and writing as well, of course, and it all then feeds back into my teaching.
But you've asked another question, which is about how scientists get information across to people and whether that's been done particularly well over the course of the pandemic. And I think it's very difficult because what we've seen over the last 18 months is that it's become incredibly political. And it's actually very difficult to tease apart the politics from the science and of course, every individual scientist – scientists aren’t apolitical, but I think the important thing is that they know that that they know, in their professional life, they strive for objectivity. And I think that's, you know, what we really need in a time of pandemic is those scientists that, you know, bring that objectivity of their professional discipline to bear on the evidence that we can see in front of us.
And then when we're looking for solutions in a similar way, to do that as objectively as possible and to strip away ideology. And I feel in the UK that we've particularly been very ideology-driven. This “following the science thing is not true at all, we've been following an ideology, and trying to shoehorn the science into that. There's always kind of worries about what's going to happen to science in a time of crisis, that we're depending on it so much. And that if there is, if there's any kind of nuance, or uncertainty around various facts and figures, then, you know, the public might feel uneasy about that, or anxious about that. And I think that's, I don't think that's the reason to pretend that the evidence is either more robust or more certain than we know it to be. I think the absolute fundamental point is that we need to maintain trust, and that we need to, we need scientists who are engaging with the public in a very level way.
But it's, you know, it's very, it's very difficult. I mean, there have been times in the pandemic, where we've got this great massive group of scientists advising the government, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE, and, you know, there'll be some times when I don't necessarily agree with the analysis, the kind of the solutions that perhaps they're suggesting, but I respect them immensely. But the awful thing that's happened is that they have become, I suppose the fall guys, you know. If there's an unpopular government policy, which draws on the science and the science as it's presented to the government by SAGE, then SAGE members become targeted for abuse online.
Jumping back to your book: So Ancestors focuses on seven burials in British history. And I wondered why you chose to focus on burials, which obviously conveys information about much more than, than just death.
It’s my thing. So this is a podcast, so you can't see the shelves behind me, but they're basically full of anatomy, fossil record, evolution of the human I mean. I'm a biological anthropologist, which means I mostly study human bones. And that's my contact with the world of archaeology really. So I analyse human bones and work with archaeologists doing that. But what I love about burials is not just the bones and what they can tell us – because they can tell us an enormous amount about somebody you know, I can tell how old somebody was, when they died, or what sex they were, usually I can look for pathology, I'm particularly interested in that because I was a doctor originally. So paleopathology, the study of disease in ancient human remains was always my kind of niche within this quite niche-sounding subject. So I'm really interested in the bones themselves.
But then actually, you cannot fail to be interested in what's going on in that burial. And you get various cultures where we see so much within the burial of life, not just death. So for instance, I'm writing the follow up to Ancestors at the moment in writing about the Anglo Saxon period where we get these amazing graves where people are buried, fully clothed. And they're also buried with lots of other objects which are obviously important to them and important as signals of their identity. It's quite macho: the men, if they can afford it are always buried with weapons. I don't think they were warriors, it's just that as a man, you had a spear and a shield. And women are buried with very gendered items as well, amazing beads, necklaces upon necklaces of beads. And there are other periods in history as well. So Ancestors is focused on prehistory – I'm looking at burials, for instance, from the Bronze Age, or the early Bronze Age, the Copper Age, and we've got burials like the Amesbury Archer, which is the most richly furnished copper age burial in Europe actually. And so we're just seeing an enormous amount. It's like a little time capsule of that culture.
So we're not just getting the biology of the individual on their own from their bones, we're actually seeing a lot more about that individual and who they were in their community, and what their culture was about. And then burial itself, I think, is interesting, because we don't really see any other animals doing it. We know that other animals mourn. We know that chimpanzees mourn. Chimpanzee mothers who will carry the dead infant with them for days. Elephants will return to the corpse of a friend or relative, again and again. So there's definitely evidence of something that looks like mourning and an understanding of the loss of an individual. I don't think other animals, even chimpanzees, understand that they're going to die. So I think that's something that does mark us that is different, that we know that at some point, we're going to die. I think all of religion is about that, it’s about the kind of the terror of knowing that we're mortal. And trying to deal with that. And obviously, humanists have a different way of dealing with that.
But yeah, trying to find out where burial starts, when burial starts happening. And there's some evidence of very early burial going back about 120,000 years ago for our species, modern humans. But we've also now got incontrovertible evidence that our sister species Neanderthals also buried their dead sometimes, and in some places. But when our species starts burying the dead, it's not universal. It's kind of sporadic. But we're seeing that kind of, I think we're seeing the thought process underlying that.
And another thing I wonder about when you're talking about what differentiates us is this idea of collective memory. I guess that relates to what we were saying earlier about narrative and story. So there's something in your book about a hill in Ireland that was once known as the hill of incest. I wondered if you could tell me a bit about how genetic discoveries might be bearing out that slightly grim name.
It's really difficult, isn't it? Because I think I mean, I've included that in there. And I do wonder if there's some kind of remembrance of that as a hill of sin? Because recent genetic evidence has shown that a man buried in Newgrange is the incestuous son of either a parent and a child, or two siblings. So you’ll never know if it's a parent and child or two siblings, we just know it was two first degree relatives.
So there's a possibility that that has then, you know, passed into legend, as it were, and then gone through time. But I think that the Neolithic tombs are more broadly interesting in that way, it has a lot to do with collective memory. And it's a lot to do with, you know, we're seeing quite a lot of these tombs containing relatives, for instance, not necessarily in one person – as in this man who was a product of incest – but we're seeing …. Primrose Grange was a father and a daughter, there was a father and a son buried in two separate but fairly close tombs in Ireland as well. And then an instance of brothers buried in a tomb in Trumpington Meadows in Cambridgeshire. So this is fascinating, because we just haven't been able to get that information before genetics came along. We've wondered about what these Neolithic chambered tombs are, we've known for a long time that they’re communal burials, that there's a lot of human remains in some of them, and then wondered about what that means. The human remains are quite often fairly mixed up. So there's been one hypothesis that perhaps, once you die, you kind of enter this realm of the dead as a sort of communal entity, you'd lose your own individual identity, which would be subsumed into that communal identity, and it's somehow anonymizing.
Whereas actually, I think what we're saying here is, it's far from anonymous, at least in those tombs, where we've got this evidence of relatives buried in the same place. And perhaps what we are seeing is, is kind of family plots, you know, which we're obviously familiar with, later on, and up until quite recently. And it may be that these are essentially family tombs for the elite. Because we are entering a period of time where we're seeing a more kind of hierarchical structure of society. And they're making their mark in the landscape. It’s a fascinating time, because this Neolithic period is the first time we get people really stamping their identity on the landscape. And, you know, creating big monumental architecture in the landscape, from stones circles, to these amazing chamber tombs.
And so there's something there about collective memory, but also something about what it means for the living. I mean, tombs are all about the living really, they're not about the dead. And if you're a relative of somebody who's buried in that tomb, which is prominent in the landscape, then perhaps there's something about your land rights, and your right to live in that in that landscape and your own authority as well.
And there are some findings as well that you write about that hint about a past we might prefer to forget. Like cannibalism.
Oh, yeah. So the cannibals of cheddar. Yeah. So we always associate cheddar with cheese. Back in the Mesolithic, they were eating each other. Now I'm always really really sceptical about evidence of cannibalism. Because archaeological human remains frequently get bashed up. You've got to be very, very careful about leaping to concrete conclusions about smashed bones. But Dr. Silvia Bello at the Natural History Museum has spent a huge amount of time poring over this collection of hundreds of fragments of bones from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge. And there's incontrovertible evidence of cannibalism there.
So some of the long bones – a say things like thigh bones – are smashed when they're clearly green, when the bone is fresh. And, and fractures look very different when bone is fresh, and when bone has been in the ground for a long time, and then perhaps disturbed and gets broken. And there's also human tooth marks on the bones. So you know, that kind of adds up to being fairly kind of suspicious. And then also, there are skulls, which have been carved into cups. So the base of the skull has been taken away, you're just left with the dome of the skull, and you kind of turn it upside down. And some of these are chipped very carefully around the edges to even it out, to create a kind of cup.
And I think the first thing that we feel when we read about this, or even see the remains, as I've done, is a sense of quite intense disgust, actually. Which I think is reasonable, because we don't tend to go around eating each other nowadays. But again, we need to be objective: we need to think, right? Was it abhorrent to them? It obviously wasn't that abhorrent, because they're doing it. And you've got to think about all the reasons why somebody might have been eating someone else, you know. It could be nutritional, it could be that they're starving. I think the skull cups goes against that a bit. And there's also a bit of engraving on a radius too, so there's something more going on than just food.
And certainly Dr. Silvia Bello thinks that. So then you think about other reasons why people might eat each other, that we might eat an enemy in order to imbibe their power perhaps, or to really kind of mark the fact that you're victorious over them. There's lots and lots of reasons, through time where people might have eaten each other. And prehistory is always difficult in that respect. And it's prehistory, nobody's written anything down. And so we just have to look at the evidence and and think about what is the most likely explanation in each case. And I think that the most likely explanation for these for these remains is that it's not purely nutritional, there's some kind of ritual going on as well.
On the other hand, the ritual doesn't necessarily mean, you know, I've suggested an example there, where it might be done in deliberate disrespect, I suppose. Or as a way of marking superiority over another group or another person, but it could be …. We do have to then really shake ourselves out of our current cultural ideas and go … could it have been a respectful thing to do? Is it just what you do to Gran when she's died? You know, when I think it's respectful to cremate somebody and then grind them up into a fine powder and go and check that off a cliff, if we tell the Mesolithic people that, they might have thought that we were obscene. So it is very weird to you know, you kind of turn it back on yourself and say “okay, yeah, some of the things we do are quite weird when you talk about it like that”.
Yeah. I mean, I guess we probably won't be seeing a return to carving cups out of each other's skulls, or I hope not. But that's a really fascinating point about our current burial practices. I sort of wondered what you think that archaeologists of the future might be able to learn from studying our remains and the way that we commemorate the dead?
Well, we've done such an about turn over the 20th century into the 21st century, in Britain, and also in Europe more widely, not quite as not quite as profoundly, but in the States as well. If you go back to 1900, very, very few people were cremated in 1900 and one of them was Pitt Rivers. But it was a really kind of unusual thing to do. And most people looked at that with kind of horror, and certainly, Pitt River’s wife thought it was ridiculous that he was going to be cremated, and they had a lot of arguments about it.
And now we just think, well, it's just, you know, it's the norm, and that's largely economic. So that's come about because of an economic necessity. And, you know, lack of space to bury people, there's always been a lack of space. So yeah, this kind of changed. I think archaeologists in the future will look at that and go, “Oh, there must have been a massive change in religion in 20th century Britain.” And of course, there wasn't. What there was, was secularisation. So we've seen quite profound secularisation to the extent that now more than half of the country is not religious and say so on polls. But I don't think actually that the trend to cremate is much to do with that anyway. I think it is just quite economic. We're going to see another economic change very soon because, of course, all these people that are cremated, are cremated in big gas fired crematoria. So, that's not sustainable. So, you know, we need to tackle that quite quickly. And lots of people are often opting for things like eco burials, again, you know, going back to burial being the more ecological option. But then we come up with this issue of room again.
So I think then you're looking at other ways. And I'll talk about some of the innovative ways that bodies are being disposed of, at the moment, and innovations which have come from America. So we've got things like resomation, when a body is essentially liquidised. And then that the liquid can be used as a fertiliser. And I also talk about that kind of the difference between memorialising somebody's life, and disposing of a body. And I do think we're going to see more kind of a move away from a focus on the body.
You're listening to With Reason from the New Humanist magazine and the Rationalist Association. And I'm talking to anatomist, author and broadcaster Alice Roberts about ancient burials, bodies, and the business of science communication. And if science is your thing, why not head to our podcast archive where you can find Jo Marchant talking about the skies and the science of awe, and Kate Devlin discussing sex robots and feminism. Time for a quick word from New humanist deputy editor Niki.
If you're enjoying With Reason, remember that you can find reading lists and transcripts for all episodes on the New Humanist website. And while you're there, why not subscribe to the magazine using our discount for listeners, just head to newhumanist.org.uk/subscribe and enter the offer code WithReason. That means you'll get four beautifully designed additions sent to you through the year, as well as access to archive pieces going back through the decades, all for just £13.50. Back now to Samira and Alice Roberts.
So Alice, we've been talking about burials, which is you say rituals often carried out in, or framed by, the presence or absence of religious belief. You're the president of Humanist UK. So I wondered if you could tell me about your own religious background? And what shapes your perspective on belief or non-belief?
Yeah, well, I was brought up in a quite devoutly religious family. So I got taken to church, pretty much every Sunday, and to Sunday school. And brought up with no kind of idea that there was really anything else on offer. And I went as far as getting confirmed. So I think I got confirmed when I was about 14.
And then the following year, I said just “no I can't do this, I'm not, I'm not believing this.” So maybe it was the process of going through confirmation. But I think you do, you do examine your faith. And unfortunately, it took a little bit longer for the penny to drop for me. But it did, it was a process of questioning. And I think I was doing a lot of science at school as well. And so that kind of questioning and critical thinking extended to my personal beliefs and my thoughts about the world itself. And I realised that even if I were to take most of the Bible (so I was brought up as an Anglican in the Church of England), even if I was to take most of the Bible with a pinch of salt, there are kind of some fundamental things that you do have to believe in, one of these being the existence of God. If you don't believe in the existence of God, you're out of the club, really. So I suppose I became an atheist age 15.
It wasn't for a long time until I realised that actually what I was a humanist. And I think a lot of people are like that, it's a lot of conversations with people who have, you know, come to their approach to the world, sometimes having left religion as I did, sometimes never having been indoctrinated to begin with, so just quite naturally growing up thinking that the world is a natural place, that we don't have to invoke supernatural ideas or supernatural phenomena to explain things, that we're happy that there's some mystery and there are things that we don't know.
But that doesn't mean that we have to invent things to fill in these gaps. And we have this brilliant tool called science, which can help us to explore these gaps, but also actually to accept that science probably won't be able to tell us everything, and that we still don't need to invoke supernatural entities. And yeah, so I think for me, it was quite a long time after I became an atheist, that I realised that actually what described my approach to the world best was humanism, because of the way that we view the world as a natural place and our position in it is a natural phenomenon, that we are an evolved species just like any other. So that came through very strongly from me studying biology.
And I think there was something else. I did believe very strongly in the capability of humans to make the world a better place, and to cooperate with each other, and to use these kind of best aspects of what makes us human. So capabilities like empathy, kindness, together with logic and rationality, and that these things together were kind of the best you could be as a human and would help you make decisions about your own life, but also about society more generally, as well. And then you get well actually, that is humanism.
Coming back to the idea of science and religious faith, which you said, you know, you're sort of getting more interested in, in science informing your atheism. Obviously, historically, as you say, I think that that experience of growing up in a religious family and not really questioning religion initially, that's probably something that was quite society-wide for long periods of our history. So I'm interested in science and religious influence, which is something that you write about in Ancestors. So one story I was particularly struck by was about William Buckland, the 19th century antiquarian, who was also a priest. And you write that for him studying the Earth meant studying the work of God. And you describe how his early work actually started from the position that Noah's Ark and the flood that prompted it were historical fact. And so I wondered if you could, if you could tell me a bit about that.
He is a fascinating character. I really enjoyed writing the chapter on the Red Lady of Paviland, which is one of the burials in the book that he excavated. But yeah, Buckland himself is just extraordinary. There’s a lot of evidence and a lot of source material. And he is interested in geology. He's interested in archaeology. He's a professor of geology at Oxford University, as well as being a cleric, obviously. And he didn't see any tension between those two things. For him science and religion were not in tension at all. Although he could see that there was a bit of a problem developing in the 19th centuries around that, you know, as science was starting to create this idea of how old the world was. And the story of evolution was starting to come out as well. He could see that there was going to be tension, that you certainly couldn't take the Bible literally anymore. But on the other hand, he was convinced that there were some things in the Bible that probably were true. And you know, were describing events in the deep past. And so he had this obsession with diluvian theory where he basically thought Noah's Flood was a historical reality, and was trying to find, trying to find evidence to show that actually, science was going to back up the Bible in that respect.
And so it really shackled his thinking, because he couldn't see the evidence any other way. He found this skeleton of the Red Lady of Paviland – who actually wasn't a woman either, he was a male skeleton. (That's another thing that Buckland couldn’t come to terms with, she looked like she was buried with what looked like jewellery. So that was, as far as he was concerned, that was a done deal. That's a closed case.) But he couldn't conceptualise that those human remains could have been as old as the elephant remains that he found in the same cave. Now these elephant remains were mammoth remains. He thought they were elephants that maybe got washed into the cave, during the Great Flood, and therefore must be much, much older than the human remains. He thought that humans were quite ancient, but only in the Middle East. So he didn't expect to see any humans at the same time as these very ancient elephants. So he says, in a letter to Lady Mary Cole, “we cannot admit the Red Lady to have been antediluvian.” In other words, to have existed before the Flood in Britain, because he didn't think there were any humans before the Flood in Britain.
So again, you know, ideology getting in the way of science, and to be fair to him, later on in life, having put forward all his evidence for what he thought was the Great Flood, and more and more evidence stacked up from geology, he backpedalled and he said, “Yeah, I was wrong. It's not a Flood at all. It is a series of ice ages.” Because the evidence had piled up to the point where actually you couldn't argue anymore that it was that. It looked like global inundation. And clearly what you had were ice ages. So it's interesting because hs mind was in shackles. His religion got in the way, but not completely. So in the end, I would have said he was more of a scientist.
It's interesting. Do you think that those two things are in opposition? Because obviously Buckland, as you explain, he was pursuing scientific discovery within a theological framework. So he was kind of starting from the place that science wouldn't challenge religious belief. So whether that was changing his view that the religious aspect was more metaphorical than literal, but it was still kind of within that framework. Do you think that religion and science are kind of fundamentally incompatible? Or are there ways in which that sort of Buckland attitude is maybe still around? For some scientists, I wonder?
It's really difficult to say, I mean, I suppose if you look at it from a broadly societal level, you'd say, well, they're not incompatible, because there's plenty of scientists that are religious, there are I mean, you know, if you look at scientists as a whole, we are less religious than the rest of the population. But from an individual perspective, there are obviously lots and lots of scientists doing absolutely brilliant work, very eminent scientists who are religious. So it's not incompatible on that kind of individual level for them. And you know, somehow, they are able to return to look at their religion in one way, or look at their science in one way. And the two are not in tension with each other in their minds.
For me, it's just a very intensely personal thing. And for me, there was tension. And I was reading a lot. And you know, when I was a teenager, I was reading a lot of books about evolution, but also about these kind of philosophies to say Stephen Jay Gould, in particular, he came up with the idea of “non-overlapping magisteria”, where he said, actually, religion and science don't need to be in tension, because they they're doing different jobs, they're explaining different things. And there might be, you know, sometimes you will turn to religion for answers. And sometimes you're turning for science to answers. And they don't need to be in tension with each other. But in my own mind, they were. So it's interesting, isn't it? Because it's like, for me, it doesn't work. But obviously, it does work for some other people.
Yeah. And actually, just sort of coming back to Buckland in a roundabout way. Of course, he was barking up the wrong tree trying to prove the historical truth of Noah's Ark. But something fascinating in your book is how some developments in ancient DNA do support some old stories, including from the Bible. So the one I'm thinking of is the case of bubonic plague and flee constipation.
Yeah, now, that is absolutely fascinating. So I think if we look at the Bible as containing perhaps some, you know, historical nuggets within it, the I suppose we're saying, what Buckland was saying: “could it be that this is history?” “And could it be that the Genesis Flood myth is history?” And it's a reasonable question to ask, it's just that once you get the evidence piling up against it, you have to admit that it's not possible. But certainly with evidence of the bubonic plague, there are there are hints of this in the Bible. And, you know, there are stories where you where you think, well, it does sound like the plague. And we've now got the ability to sequence not only human DNA, but pathogen DNA. So any kind of diseases will, you know, there'll be bringing their own, bringing their own DNA with them. And when it comes to the plague, this has been really fascinating, because we can look at, for instance, passages in the Bible about the plague, we can look at later history as well. And look at the plague as described in the sixth century, for instance, the Justinian plague, and wonder whether that was the same pathogen that caused the Black Death much, much later in the Mediaeval period. But unless you've got a diagnostic technique, you don't know. And now we have a diagnostic technique. So now we know that the bubonic plague was around at the time it's being described in the Bible. So it seems very possible indeed, that this really was the plague. We know that the Justinian plague is the same, it’s Yersinia pestis, it's the same plague pathogen.
And we've had recently, just a couple of years ago, a sequence from a cemetery in Essex, Spong Hill, showing that the Justinian plague reached Britain. So we didn't know that at all from the history. So it's really interesting, because it means that we can go back to the histories, again. We've got another diagnostic technique to help us. And sometimes we'll see that supporting what is described in the histories or actually nailing the pathogen for us. But sometimes as in this case of Spong Hill, there's no historical record of the plague reaching Eastern England, but we've got the DNA so we can say “Yes, it did”. So I think we're going to see that a lot with genetics, we're going to be able to explore historical stories. But we're also going to be able to really extend that historical story.
Well that comes neatly back to what we were talking about at the outset, about narrative and science, doesn't it? So in each episode of With Reason, we dig around in the New Humanist archive for a piece that speaks to our guest's work. So today, I have been looking at a 2018 piece by a science writer, Peter Forbes. And it's a profile of David Reich, a geneticist who has carried out pioneering research in the field of ancient DNA that, I think, touches on lots of what we've been talking about: human migration and identity and so on. So I wondered if you could tell me a bit about David Reich's research. I know you cited it at points in the book and its significance.
Well David Reich is a real pioneer in ancient genetics. And he's really helped to bring genetics to the fore when it comes to exploring some of these questions, particularly about ancient migrations. I would urge anybody who is interested in this whole sphere of archaeology meets genetics to read David Reich’s brilliant book.
Great. And so you say he's a pioneer. And there's obviously, as we spoke about at the outset, these huge developments in this field. Where do you think is left to go for the collaboration between genetics and archaeology?
I think we're just starting. So I think what we're seeing at the moment within genetics, and particularly with genomics, we're seeing so many revelations coming through thick and fast. We will understand a lot more about people moving around in the past – that’s one of the really big things. We're able to look at kinship. We're able to sex skeletons that I couldn't sex, for instance, say – there'll be some skeletons … there will always be skeletons where I go, “I don't know, I don't can't say for sure if this is male or female”, but genetics can. So there's lots of kind of details like that to be added.
But there's some really profound bigger picture stuff as well. It's quite a disruptive technology at the moment, because it's coming along and providing answers that we didn't even know were possible 10 years ago. But I think it will get to the point where it becomes an almost standard thing to do when you're analysing human remains, in the same way that we use radiocarbon dating to work out the date of any organic remains. I think that we'll be seeing genomes used much more frequently and much more widely.
And then one of the really exciting developments at the moment is that you don't even need a bone to get DNA out of. You can get DNA out of mud. So we're seeing amazing breakthroughs with sedaDNA, sedimentary ancient DNA, where just using soil samples, for instance, you can extract DNA from that. And you can see which organisms were around in a particular environment – sort of dizzying, the amount of information.
Before you go, what are you up to for the rest of the year?
I'm just off filming a new series of Digging For Britain. So we had a fallow year last year, because there wasn't much archaeology happening. But I'm off travelling around the country visiting really exciting archaeological sites. And I'm halfway through filming that. So that should be on in probably November or December, on BBC Two. And I'm also going on tour. So I'm doing a small tour in November, where I'll be talking about Ancestors, and all the details of that on my website.
Well, thank you, Alice. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Alice Roberts there, talking about her new book Ancestors.
And with me now is Niki Smith, deputy editor of New Humanist magazine. So Niki, what's your take on what we've just heard from Alice?
So I was surprised at the level to which genetics was revolutionising what we know about history and prehistory. And I knew that developments were being made. But I was particularly struck by the fact that we might need to revise our ideas about the Anglo Saxon invasion. That seemed particularly interesting, because that informs so much about what we think about identity in this country and Englishness in particular.
Yeah, absolutely. I think there's something really fascinating about these sort of legends that we grow up with, and the points of crossover between legend and history, and maybe not all is, as we think it is.
Yeah, you really got that sense of excitement from Alice of just applying this, you know, what she called a disruptive technology, to these really old ancient myths and these different forms of knowledge colliding. And I also found it interesting that she was talking about the act of burial and what we can learn about that being qs much to do with life, as it is to do with death, but also that it might say something very distinctive about our species, because I didn't realise that animals didn't bury their dead. I sort of had a notion of the elephant graveyard. And obviously, as Alice says, chimpanzees mourn. Elephants mourn. But they don't actually bury their dead.
You have that whole idea about what makes us human, or what differentiates humans rather from other species. I think it's obviously a huge question and one of particular interest, perhaps to humanists, but also more broadly. And then I wonder also, if what we're talking about now, the kind of story and myth and legend, if that's another thing that might be differentiating. There's certainly a lot of that in what Alice was talking about.
Absolutely. We're definitely storytelling animals.
So that's all for today. We'll be back next week with more. And remember, you can find reading lists and transcripts for all episodes of With Reason at newhumanist.org.uk. You can also find us on Twitter @NewHumanist. This podcast was presented by me, Samira Shackle with Niki Seth-Smith. Our sound engineer was David Crackles and our series producer is Alice Bloch. See you back here soon. Goodbye.
Alice Roberts, ‘Ancestors: A Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials’ (2021)
Alice Roberts and Andrew Copson, ‘The Little Book of Humanism: Universal Lessons on Finding Purpose, Meaning and Joy’ (2020)
David Reich ‘Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human’ (2018)