Link: A plea to think about the ethics of sampling ancient bodies

Chip Colwell writes in The Conversation about the questionable ethics involved in some ancient DNA sampling: “Rights of the dead and the living clash when scientists extract DNA from human remains”.

As an archaeologist, I share in the excitement around how technology and techniques to study DNA are leaping ahead. As never before, the mysteries of our bodies and histories are finding exciting answers – from the revelation that humans interbred with Neanderthals, to how Britain was populated, to the enigma of a decapitated Egyptian mummy.
But, I have also closely studied the history of collecting human remains for science. I am gravely concerned that the current “bone rush” to make new genetic discoveries has set off an ethical crisis.

The link on the term “bone rush” points to “a short piece in Technology Review that attributes the phrase “bone rush” to me. I didn’t take the phrase from anybody else, and I think we’ve entered a scary atmosphere from the point of view of ethics of ancient DNA.

I haven’t written here yet about the case of the “Ata” body. The body was allegedly removed illegally from Chile and made the subject of a documentary film production. Tissue samples were removed and the body’s genome was sampled by geneticists from Stanford and the University of California–San Francisco. Colwell mentions the case in this essay, and there is more to say on this case.

In just the last few weeks, the egregious “Ata” case has been reported, NPR has carried out a DNA-free chemical sampling of a classroom skeleton, the FBI helped identify an Egyptian mummy using ancient DNA methods, ancient DNA was applied to an early Medieval case of head-binding, and the New York Times has reported that David Reich is sampling thousands of ancient bones, systematically removing the inner ears of ancient skulls. And those stories are just a small sampling of ancient DNA science news in the last few weeks.

My profession is the study of dead skeletons. Even for me, the current landscape of ancient DNA is bewildering. I think we should do as much as possible to bring the stories of ancient people to light. But every piece of evidence we have from past populations is precious, and every one can benefit from the engagement of a broader community, including possible descendant communities, local and national governments, and other stakeholders.

My concern is that scientists are rushing to bring out results, using today’s limited technology, without broadening the base of support for the science. Scientists may individually be working within the ethical framework they understand, but I believe we could do much better work.