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Department of American Studies College of Arts and Sciences

Frederika Kaestle « Committee on NAIS

Picture of Frederika Kaestle

Associate Professor of Anthropology
Director, Ancient DNA Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology
Affiliate Faculty, William R. Adams Zooarchaeology Lab
Fellow, Indiana Molecular Biology Institute
Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Biology

Office: Student Building 248
Phone: (812) 855-3164
E-mail: kaestle at


During my academic career I’ve specialized in molecular genetic techniques that can be utilized to address anthropological questions. Over the past decade I have concentrated on the new techniques and protocols that make ancient DNA available for study, and have used these data to test hypotheses based on archaeological, linguistic, and ethnographic studies.

Anthropologists have struggled with the relationship between biology and culture: how do we identify biological relationships in prehistory using cultural and skeletal remains? Conventional anthropological analysis of skeletal material has often failed to clarify complex issues of social organization and structure, including kinship systems and residence and mating patterns. Multiple burials are also a well-known feature of prehistoric mortuary behavior, but traditional archaeological methods often do not provide much insight into the meanings and implications of this pattern because the relationships of the individuals associated in multiple burials are not known. On a larger scale, similarities in material culture have been considered signals of biological continuity or contact in prehistory, while abrupt changes in material culture or morphology have been taken as signs of biological replacement. Further conflation of material culture and morphological similarities with biological populations often occurs in assessing prehistoric patterns of population movement over long distances, on occasion accompanied by supporting data from modern linguistic relationships. Thus, material culture, language, and morphology become proxies for ethnicity, which is conflated with the biological concept of a population. Although in many modern cases these classes of data map onto each other rather well, their conflation in prehistory is problematic given the numerous examples of their discontinuity in contemporary and historic groups. Ancient DNA provides us with another source of data relevant to these issues, and in many cases allows the first direct tests of some of these hypotheses.

In my research I’ve looked at several instances of hypothesized prehistoric population movement and replacement, such as the Numic Expansion in the Great Basin, the initial peopling of the New World, and the settlement of the Pacific, in an effort to determine which archaeological signals are the most reliable indicators of prehistoric migrations and relationships and to refine current hypotheses regarding these specific instances of possible population movement. In addition, my previous projects and current research interests have included much more fine-grained analyses of kinship and residence and burial patterns. In general, kinship and sex are the primary structural elements upon which ancient social organization was based. These parameters determined inter- and intra-community relationships, status and position within the socio-political hierarchy, and inheritance of social prerogatives. Traditionally, kinship and sex have been assessed through archaeological context and conventional physical anthropological analysis. These analyses, however, are limited by factors such as the degree of preservation of the remains, ambiguities in physical markers, and researcher bias. The study of aDNA (ancient DNA) provides a means to mitigate some of these limitations by enabling genetic discrimination of kinship and precise determination of sex for burials in which hard tissue has been preserved. Ancient DNA data may determine whether relationships were based on blood (consanguineal), marriage (affinal), or other systems, and can contribute greatly to our understanding of differential patterns of mortality, disease, diet, burial, and material culture based on sex or kinship.

Relevant Courses

  • ANTH B200: Bioanthropology
  • ANTH B370: Human Variation
  • ANTH B400/600: Peopling of the Americas
  • ANTH B400/600: Ancient DNA in Anthropology
  • ANTH B400/600: Ethics of Anthropological Genetics
  • ANTH B525: Genetic Methods in Anthropology, with Laboratory

Publication Highlights

2008   Population Continuity or Replacement? A Novel Computer Simulation Approach and its Application to the Numic expansion (Western Great Basin, USA). American Journal of Physical Anthropology 135/4:438-47. With G. Cabana and K. Hunley.

2006   Tuberculosis in the New World: A Study of Ribs from the Schild Mississippian Population, West-Central Illinois. Mem Inst Oswaldo Cruz, 101(Suppl. II):25-27. Rio de Janeiro. With J. Raff and D. Cook.

2005   Working with Ancient DNA: NAGPRA, Kennewick Man and Other Ancient Peoples. In Biological Anthropology and Ethics, ed. T. R. Turner, 241-62. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. With D. G. Smith.

2005   Ethical Currents: DNA and Ancestry. Anthropology News 46/3:8.

2005   Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroups of Paleoamericans in North America. In PaleoAmerican Origins: Moving Beyond Clovis, ed. R. Bonnichsen, B. Lepper, D. G. Steele, D. Stanford, C.N. Warren, and R. Gruhn, 243-54. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press. With D. G. Smith, R. S. Malhi, and J. A. Eshleman.

2004   Mitochondrial DNA and Prehistoric Settlements: Native Migrations on the Western Edge of North America. Human Biology 76/1:55-75. With J. A. Eshleman, R.S. Malhi, J. Johnson, J. Lorenz, and D. G. Smith.

2004   Patterns of mtDNA Diversity in Northwestern North America. Human Biology 76/1:33-54. With R. S. Malhi, B.A. Shultz, K. Breece, J. C. Chatters, S. Hackenberger, M. Pavesic, and D. G. Smith.

2004    Site CA-SCL-755: Implications of Ancient Native American DNA. In Discovering Santa Clara University’s Prehistoric Past: CA-SCL-755, ed. R. K. Skowronek and M. A. Graham, 95-111 (Chapter 8). Research Manuscript Series on the Cultural and Natural History of Santa Clara, No. 12. Santa Clara: Santa Clara University.