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Studying ancestral remains needs to be done respectfully, ethically

April 26, 2018

Scientists should consult indigenous populations when studying ancestral remains, Jessica Bardill et al. emphasize in this Policy Forum. They note that, although paleogenomics is increasingly providing modern populations a valuable glimpse into the past, the ethical principles and practices of such science have not kept pace. The results of paleogenetic studies can greatly impact indigenous populations, for example by undermining or complicating community claims in treaty, repatriation, territorial, or other legal cases. Paleogenomic narratives may also misconstrue or contradict community histories, potentially harming community or individual identities. And yet, the authors note, little legal structure or ethical guidance is available to help researchers determine ethical best practices for paleogenomic studies. Legally in the U.S., only living individuals are considered "human subjects," while the remains of ancestors are designated legally and scientifically as "artifacts." Bardill et al. recommend that ancestral remains be regarded not as "artifacts" but as human relatives who deserve respect in research. As the deceased cannot give consent, present-day communities should be consulted, they say. The authors describe some of their experiences in Canada, where, in order to ensure ethical and mutually beneficial paleogenomic research, an agreement was signed outlining expectations of the researchers and community before samples were collected for analysis from ancestors. The authors provide seven guiding questions for researchers to consider when taking on paleogenomic research, noting that community engagement and capacity building for indigenous researchers will ultimately produce more robust, ethical research.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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