Indigenous peoples and the Genographic Project

New York Times science writer Amy Harmon has penned an article about the trials of the Genographic Project. The piece focuses on opposition from indigenous rights groups, and the links of the project to the defunct HGDP.

If you sort of know this history already, the article gets interesting on the second and third pages. There is a great description of the troubles faced by Tad Schurr, who is in charge of collecting samples in North America:

But among the 10 geneticists the society has given the task of collecting 10,000 samples each by the spring of 2010, Theodore G. Schurr, the project's North American director, is in last place. Fewer than 100 vials of DNA occupy a small plastic box in his laboratory's large freezer at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an assistant professor of anthropology. And at the request of the Alaska review board, he has sent back the 50 or so samples that he collected in Alaska to be stored in a specimen bank under its care until he can satisfy their concerns.

The article doesn't do a great job of giving concrete examples of the problems such research might create for indigenous people. Instead, it describes the struggle to combat misinformation -- for example:

Pierre Zalloua, the project director in the Middle East, faces suspicion that he is an emissary of an opposing camp trying to prove their lineages are not important.

Certainly this kind of suspicion is an important aspect of the story -- just as it is for all foreign scientists, although with the added element of DNA sampling, patents, and disease research. Such suspicions are understandable but unfair, and one hopes that the scientists can overcome them.

But the genetic information proferred by Genographic really may cause real problems in some circumstances. The best concrete example is at the end:

In the meantime, his early results have surprised some of the Alaskans who gave him their DNA. In South Naknek, Lorianne Rawson, 42, found out her DNA contradicted what she had always believed. She was not descended from the Aleuts, her test results suggested, but from their one-time enemies, the Yup'ik Eskimos.

The link to the Yup'iks, Ms. Rawson said, only made her more curious. "We want them to do more research," she added, offering Dr. Schurr more relatives to be tested.</blockquote>

I included the last paragraph to make sure to note that this person was pleased and interested in the result. Because, it seems to me that this is exactly the kind of result that is most problematic.

Consider the basis of the result: samples of Aleut mtDNA examined thus far (e.g., this paper by Derbenova et al. 2002, or this one by Zlojutro et al. 2006) generally have one of two haplotypes including one-off variants of these. Published references on Aleut variation have been fairly common, with a total sample size now into the hundreds of sequences. Yup'ik have been less commonly sampled. Rubicz et al. (2003 link) found the following:

The coalescence dates of the Aleut 16212G and D2 clusters also suggest that Aleuts split from related proto-Eskimo groups before or around this same time period [i.e., 3000-4000 years ago]. If correct, then the timing of this fiburcation is generally compatible with dates estimated for the same separation based on linguistic and classical blood group marker data (Harper 1980; Woodbury 1984). In addition, the Aleut 16212G sublineage of haplogroup A is not present in Eskimo populations, and D2 haplotypes are present only in Chukchi and Siberian Eskimos (and one Alaskan Athapaskan), and at low frequencies. Moreover, all Eskimoan groups (Yupik and Inupik) possess the 16265G sublineage of haplogroup A, which is dated at 4398 +- 1574 years, whereas the Aleuts lack these haplotypes altogether. Thus, it appears that Eskimoan populations became genetically distinctive as an ethnic group somewhat later than the Aleuts, but also shortly before the Na-Dene Indians, whose own 16331G sublineage of haplogroup A dates to approximately 3950 +- 2417 years.

That sounds like a way to demonstrate Yup'ik affinities: find the 16265G mutation, and your sequence hasn't yet been found in a sample of 163 Aleuts.

But here is a person whose genealogical history was ostensibly Aleut. The test says she has a haplotype that hasn't yet been found in an Aleut sample. Does that mean that the test has disconfirmed the oral history? Or does it mean that the test has failed to identify ethnographically "true" Aleut? At some level, the question is unanswerable -- if the sample of Aleuts included everyone who reported genealogical affinity with Aleut, then it would include this woman and her haplotype.

So the test is applied to report or "test" an individual's affinity with some group, but it depends on subjective reports from other people to determine the average membership of the group. Which itself entails assumptions about the kinds of genetic movement between groups that has occurred in the past. It is hard to escape a certain circularity.

None of this is a necessary problem for academic interests, which focus on the movements and interactions of the groups. But as applied to group or individual identity, it may create a big problem.

For example, what happens if a person's tribal benefits derive from a relation through a maternal ancestor that the test contradicts? Many people who discover newfound affinities with an unexpected group might not find the academic interest of such a result to be worth the possible cost. And it is very easy to lose sight of the fundamental ambiguity of the test -- it may be suggesting an affinity, for a very small proportion of ancestry, but can it prove it?

The mating and migration interactions of tribes during European expansion were complex, and probably disrupted many longstanding genealogical histories. Considering that complex history, it isn't too far-fetched to imagine a native group with a high proportion of Y chromosome contribution from Europeans, Africans, or some distant tribe. The issue has already emerged as nontraditional people attempt to prove tribal affinities with DNA sequencing. The converse case seems equally plausible -- suppose that a tribe attempting to negotiate a renewal of a gaming compact is confronted with research papers showing that a majority of their Y chromosomes have affinities with Europe. It may not make a legal difference, but might make a large political difference, and most of the high-stakes agreements are subject to the political process.

The other issue that is often raised concerns the value of origins myths. Geneticists view origins myths largely as interesting from an ethnographic perspective but objectively false from an empirical perspective. But in a context -- common to most rural locations -- where children are growing up and leaving their communities in search of educational and job opportunities, cultural legacies including origins myths provide some of the strongest ties opposing dissolution. People who represent the political structure of a group (the "tribal leaders" that emerge in discussions of these genetic issues) have a strong stake in maintaining cohesiveness -- if these elements are lost, then political power is lost as well. And just as the scientists have little investment in indigenous origins myths, most indigenous people have little investment in scientific accounts of their origins. It is good to recognize this fundamental symmetry of motivations: opposing science is often a quite rational strategy.

Most of the people involved in genetic research on indigenous peoples are well aware of these issues, and try to build ties to circumvent them. Indeed, nobody can be successful for long at this work without very sophisticated strategies for communicating the social value of their work.

But certainly a lot of readers are wondering what the problem is -- and may interpret reluctance to cooperate with the agenda of geneticists as mere misinformed intransigence -- akin to creationism. There are certainly similarities between the two cases, but considering the situation as a whole, a lot more interesting dynamic is at work.