Navigating the ethics of ancient human DNA research

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INTRO: The 2022 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine has brought fresh attention to paleogenomics, the sequencing of DNA of ancient specimens. Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo won the coveted prize “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.” In addition to sequencing the Neanderthal genome and identifying a previously unknown early human called Denisova, Pääbo also found that genetic material of these now extinct hominins had mixed with those of our own Homo sapiens after our ancestor migrated from Africa some 70,000 years ago.

The study of ancient DNA has also shed light on other migrations, as well as the evolution of genes involved in regulating our immune system and the origin of our tolerance to lactose, among many other things. The research has also ignited ethical questions. Clinical research on living people requires the informed consent of participants and compliance with federal and institutional rules.

But what do you do when you’re studying the DNA of people who died a long time ago? That gets complicated, says anthropologist Alyssa Bader, coauthor of an article about ethics in human paleogenomics in the 2022 Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics.

“Consent takes on new meaning” when participants are no longer around to make their voices heard, Bader and colleagues write. Scientists instead must regulate themselves, and navigate the sometimes contradictory guidelines — some of which prioritize research outcomes; others, the wishes of descendants, even very distant ones, and local communities. There are no clear-cut, ironclad rules, says Bader, now at McGill University in Montreal, Canada: “We don’t necessarily have one unified field standard for ethics.”

Take, for example, research at Pueblo Bonito, a massive stone great house in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, where a community thrived from 828 to 1126 AD under the rule of ancestral Puebloan peoples. In the late 1800s, archaeologists from the American Museum of Natural History started excavations there, unearthing more than 50,000 tools, ritual objects and other belongings, as well as the remains of 14 people. These human bones remained stored in boxes and drawers, allowing non-Indigenous researchers to study them. Recently, a research team extracted and analyzed their DNA. The study, published in 2017, suggested an exciting finding: The remains found in Pueblo Bonito once belonged to members of a matrilineal dynasty, and leadership at Chaco Canyon was likely passed through a female line that persisted for hundreds of years until the society collapsed.

But the research sparked fierce ethical discussions. Several anthropologists and geneticists, Bader included, criticized the study for its lack of tribal consultation — the Puebloan and Diné communities, who still live in the area, were not asked for permission to carry out the research. The critics also cited the dehumanizing language (such as “cranium 8” or “burial 14”) that authors used to describe the Pueblo ancestors and warned that the controversy would exacerbate feelings of distrust toward scientists.

Bader spoke with Knowable Magazine about what we can learn from research on ancient DNA and why considering the ethics around it is such an urgent task for the field. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity... (MORE - missing details)

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