BMCR 2023.11.30

Homo migrans: modeling mobility and migration in human history

, Homo migrans: modeling mobility and migration in human history. Albany: SUNY Press, 2022. Pp. xiv, 359. ISBN 9781438488011.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


Megan J. Daniels has edited a volume bringing together numerous contributions on the topic of migration. The title already indicates the book’s main intention: Homo migrans refers to man’s eternal movement in geographical (and social) space. This innocent Latin participial construction thus contains a research programme while encouraging us to think about history differently. In her article, which frames the contributions to the volume, Daniels elaborates on this. Not entirely without polemic, she points out the paradox of considering migration as an exception when it is a recurring phenomenon in human history. It is, of course, hard to argue against this, for there is much truth in her argument, and it has been made before.[1] The question mark behind the title “Movement as a Constant” is therefore surprising at first since the answer seems obvious from sociological or historical migration research. However, the persistence of scholarship towards finding new insights should not be underestimated either.

The book’s programmatic title is reminiscent of the older but nonetheless influential work of the sociologists Daniel Kubat and Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny, who noted as early as the 1980s that “man is mobile by nature.”[2] Daniels’ aim, however, is not just to assert (again) that migration is an important part of human history. More interestingly, her focus is not on changing theoretical paradigms but on new archaeometric and scientific methods that require new questions. Building on the work of Kristian Kristiansen, she points out that new developments such as big data and aDNA analysis have brought about a radical change, which Kristiansen calls the third revolution (after the ‘Darwinian’ and ‘C14 revolutions’) in archaeology.[3] The extent to which this is a revolution is certainly debatable, especially since dating by style or stratigraphy has not been rendered obsolete by the introduction of radiocarbon dating and other archaeometric methods, such as lead isotope analysis. Rather, the range of possibilities has been extended. Nevertheless, there is already much evidence that these new methods have the potential to transform not only archaeology but all historical disciplines. And this is what makes the book of interest to a wide range of scholars, not only thematically in terms of their specific object of study but also theoretically, more precisely in how these new questions can be translated into research approaches.

Organising the volume thematically rather than chronologically or by culture seems, therefore, appropriate. The volume is thus divided into four parts, each dealing with different models or narratives of migration. As the book consists of the work of more than 20 authors in 15 chapters, it is not possible to discuss all the contributions here. Instead, I will limit myself to reviewing a few exemplary articles in order to highlight the strengths of the approach as well as potential pitfalls. The first part deals with the data generated by new methods and the need for new narratives. It is unsurprising that all articles of the opening section were written by experts in prehistory since it is in this field that aDNA analyses, in particular, have been widely applied. The authors in this section largely detach themselves from individual case studies and offer general considerations. Kristiansen, for example, proposes a typology of migration patterns based on new findings for the 5th to the 1st millennium BCE, namely “community-based farming colonisation”, “pastoral male-dominated migrations”, and “conquest migrations”. He does not stop there, however, but addresses other important issues, in particular the role of captives and involuntary migrants, and also considers approaches from the context of Greek colonisation, such as Irad Malkin’s analysis of networks.[4] Finally, Kristiansen offers some epistemological reflections, noting interestingly for his subject the cyclical swings of discourse between humanistic and scientific interpretations.

The contribution by Franco DeAngelis, which opens the second part, builds a bridge to the question raised at the beginning of the book, namely whether new data lead to new narratives, by problematising this question against the background of Greek and Phoenician colonisation in Sicily and southern Italy. In necessarily bold strokes, he paints a picture of two conflicting narratives of migration: On the one hand, the “colonialist narrative” sees the Greeks and Phoenicians as bringing civilisation to a culturally underdeveloped region, while the “postcolonial narrative”, on the other hand, attributes a greater cultural autonomy to the so-called indigenous peoples before the arrival of the migrants. Thus, neither (falsely) attributing backwardness to the so-called indigenous population nor ignoring the cultural influence of the Greeks and Phoenicians can be an option. DeAngelis therefore regards genetic and isotopic analyses as opportunities to approach a more complex picture.

Combining her work on ancient mapping with case studies from the last two centuries BCE, Elena Isayev approaches the visibility or invisibility of migration with the underlying question of who was considered an outsider. Written evidence in the context of these case studies tends to record events of mass mobility, often being initiated by a state. However, other forms of what we call migration often did not leave a trace in historiography. Yet isotopic analyses carried out in Italy at Roman cemeteries suggest that often a large proportion of the buried individuals were of nonlocal origin. Isayev identifies social status as an important factor in her case studies when addressing the question of when someone becomes visible as an outsider. As she concludes prospectively, larger samples of buried individuals will not only shed light on the proportion of migrants within a community and their provenience but also highlight integrative practices, making nonlocals invisible.

Both Isayev’s and DeAngelis’ contributions demonstrate a vital strength of the book’s approach: the intellectual fertility of combining new bioarchaeological methods with existing knowledge to ask questions that deviate from the well-trodden paths of familiar scholarly debates. Another is that it brings together archaeologists and (to a lesser extent) historians, each studying different periods with unlike methods. Of course, problems are inevitable here and should be anticipated to some extent to be able to enter a fruitful dialogue. For example, in the same chapter on the in/visibility of migrants, Catherine M. Cameron meritoriously points out another possible blind spot: deportation and other forms of involuntary migration. In her search for indicators in the archaeological evidence, she draws comparisons with other historical case studies, which she extracts from the relevant literature. This is legitimate, but analogies are drawn to very different historical periods and social structures. They should therefore be examined in more detail than is possible in a short chapter. Furthermore, it is questionable whether “voluntary” and “involuntary” are appropriate categories for migration, as they are difficult to separate empirically. Given the many of the cases described using the “push-pull” models that the author criticises, it does not seem entirely convincing to label refugees fleeing civil strife as “voluntary migrants”. Nevertheless, Cameron very helpfully provides indicators, such as skewed sex ratios in the archaeological record, which (in combination) can make the presence of captives seem plausible.

Another, perhaps more serious problem arises in the next section of the book, which deals with computational models of migration. There, a team of authors led by Ezra B. W. Zubrow develops a theory and model for migration among any number of locations (N sites). From the outset, the authors adopt a neo-Malthusian approach, stating that Malthus’ key hypothesis as “an empirical generalisation [..] was valid for most of the preindustrial world prior to 1760” (205). Although the authors mention the severe criticism of Malthus, they only acknowledge this for the proposed population ratios. For the preindustrial world, they take it for granted that technological progress is always absorbed by the subsequent population growth. The rationale for this, however, is thin.[5] Furthermore, it is somewhat unclear why migration is a viable option for a community suffering from starvation due to ‘overpopulation’, as it requires significant surpluses to travel long distances and even more so to settle in an environment that is barely known. Other strategies, therefore, seem to be more plausible. Finally, equating resources with raw materials could be a trap since resources acquire value within a production process, in which substitutes, or alternative production strategies could be found. Critical engagement with debates in neighbouring disciplines can certainly be beneficial.

The volume concludes with a contribution by Hans Bernard. Although the author insists that his contribution is not a conclusion to the volume, the article, in its versatility, represents the book in the best sense. From the cellular to the individual to the group level, Bernard develops many interesting thoughts on motion from prehistory to the present. Certainly, there is much to discuss and an increasing need for mediation between the different approaches. Or, to put it differently, both the answers and the questions will have to be fought over. This, in particular, promises to be a most exciting process.



Klaus J. Bade, Europa in Bewegung. Migration vom späten ­18. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart, München 2000.

Klaus J. Bade and Jochen Oltmer (eds.), Normalfall Migration (ZeitBilder ­15), Bonn 2004.

Kristian Kristiansen, “Towards a new paradigm? The third science revolution and its possible consequences in archaeology”, Current Swedish Archaeology 8 (2014) 211–225.

Daniel Kubat and Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny, “Migration: Towards a new paradigm”, International Social Science Journal 33 (1981) 307–329.

Irad Malkin, A small Greek world: Networks in the ancient Mediterranean, Oxford 2011.


Authors and Titles

  1. Movement as a Constant? Envisioning a Migration‑Centered Worldview of Human History, Megan J. Daniels

Part I: New Data and New Narratives

  1. Toward a New Prehistory: Re‑Theorizing Genes, Culture, and Migratory Expansions, Kristian Kristiansen
  2. Migration, Ancient DNA, and Bronze Age Pastoralists from the Eurasian Steppes, David W. Anthony
  3. The Conceptual Impacts of Genomics to the Archaeology of Movement, Omer Gokcumen

Part II: Migrations, Visible and Invisible: Toward More Inclusive Histories

  1. New Data and Old Narratives: Migrants and the Conjoining of the Cultures and Economies of the Pre‑Roman Western Mediterranean, Franco De Angelis
  2. Captives: The Invisible Migrant, Catherine M. Cameron
  3. The In/Visibility of Migration, Elena Isayev
  4. A Harbor Scene: Reassessing Mobility in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean Following the Archaeological Science Revolution, Assaf Yasur‑Landau

Part III: Computational Models of Migration

  1. Surfing with the Alien: Simulating and Testing the Spread of Early Farming across the Adriatic Basin, Marc Vander Linden, Cornelis Drost, Jane Gaastra, Ivana Jovanović, Sébastien Manem, and Anne de Vareilles
  2. The Settlement Record, Paleodemography, and Evidence for Migrations in Eneolithic Ukraine, Thomas K. Harper
  3. N Site Continuous Model for Migration: Parameter and Prehistoric Tests, Ezra B. W. Zubrow, Aleksandr Diachenko, and Jay Leavitt

Part IV: Sociohistorical Models of Migration

  1. Toward a Social Archaeology of Forced Migration: Rebuilding Landscapes of Memory in Medieval Armenian Cilicia, Aurora E. Camaño
  2. Macro- and Micro‑Mobilities and the Creation of Identity in the Ancient Near East, Anne Porter
  3. Wandering Ports on the Datça Peninsula: Exploring Regional Mobility in a Maritime Landscape, Elizabeth S. Greene and Justin Leidwanger

Part V: Migration and Complexity

  1. Assessing the Possibility of Trans‑Maritime Mobility in Archaic Hominins: Does Afro‑Eurasian Coastal Palaeogeography Support Sweepstakes Dispersal in Homo?, Thomas P. Leppard
  2. Homo mobilis: Interactions, Consciousness, and the Anthropocene, Hans Bernard



[1] For example, Bade (2000) or Bade and Oltmer (2004).

[2] Kubat and Hoffmann-Nowotny (1981), 312.

[3] Kristiansen (2014).

[4] Malkin (2011).

[5] “The neo-Malthusians such as Boulding (1959) and Paecock (1952) feel [sic!] that the general Malthusian Model applies where the Industrial Revolution has not changed the potential for production by several quantum leaps” (205).