Frederika Kaestle

Frederika Kaestle

Associate Professor, Anthropology

Director, Ancient DNA Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology


  • Ph.D., Anthropology, University of California, Davis, 1998
  • M.A., Anthropology, University of California, Davis, 1994
  • B.A., Anthropology, Yale University, 1992

Geographical Areas of Specialization:
Native America; Pacific; Asia

Research Interests
molecular anthropology; molecular evolution; population genetics; ancient DNA

About Frederika Kaestle

During my academic career I have 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 residence and mating patterns, and kinship systems. 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 have 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.

Selected Publications

2003 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Promise and Problems of Ancient DNA for Anthropology. In A Goodman, D Heath and MS Lindee (eds.) Anthropology in the Age of Genetics: Practice, Discourse and Critique. Berkeley: University of California Press. Accepted

2003 Kaestle, FA and DG Smith “Working with Ancient DNA: NAGPRA, Kennewick Man and Other Ancient Peoples.” In TR Turner (ed.). Biological Anthropology and Ethics. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Accepted.

2003 Malhi, RS, BA Schultz, K Breece, FA Kaestle and DG Smith. Population prehistory on the Columbia Plateau as Evidenced by mtDNA: Implications for a Proto-Algonquian Migration. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Accepted.