January 25, 2022 5:42 pm

A multidisciplinary scientific group establishes an ethical framework to investigate ancient DNA

The rapid growth of ancient DNA research and its impact on archeology has prompted the need to develop ethical standards to frame this discipline.

The proper approach to working with human DNA differs, depending on the context, across the planet

These debates have led the scientific community to consider what are the best practices for taking samples of human remains and conducting scientific studies in a way that involves the various interest groups.

However, the proper approach to working with human DNA differs, depending on the context, across the planet.

This has led to a group of 64 specialists from 24 countries with active participation in research on ancient DNA to develop a set of guidelines, to which they have committed in an article published in the journal Nature.

A decalogue with Spanish participation

The framework document, which has already been translated into more than 23 languages, has had the participation of Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE), a mixed center of CSIC and of the Pompeu Fabra University.

The paleogeneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox, principal investigator of the palaeogenomics laboratory At IBE, he has been part of the work team that has developed this ethical framework for the study of ancient DNA.

“This is the first global framework for ethical research on ancient human remains. We propose not only to follow local administrative regulations but also to minimize the destruction of human remains, which deserve all our respect, and to prioritize an open and flexible investigation in which the data generated is accessible to everyone, ”says Lalueza-Fox.

Paleogeneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox, principal investigator of the paleogenomics laboratory at IBE, has been part of the work team that has developed this ethical framework

The document notes that so far much of the writing on ancient DNA ethics has come from specialists who think about issues that affect Native Americans in the United States, with a terrible history of colonial exploitation of Native American tribes by European descendants.

From this history, some reports have suggested that decisions about the feasibility of some studies should be determined by the lthe indigenous communities themselves or other natural descendant groups and administrators of the remains. However, in many parts of the world, putting the custody of the remains in the hands of local communities, who often have no plausible relationship with the ancient people they study, does not make sense and can even contribute to division and conflict. .

Integrate local communities in research

The ethical decalogue points out how specialists in Europe have worked for decades to deconstruct narratives claiming ownership of heritage by specific groups, as they were used to justify claims to territory in the Nazi period

On the African continent, deontological problems are related to unethical remains collections developed during the colonial period

At African continent, the key ethical issues for DNA research on human remains are not identifying which groups are indigenous and thus adequately representing the dead, but dealing with the colonial legacies of unethically collected remains and sent to often abroad for research.

“I believe that in ancient DNA studies, indigenous groups should also be involved in the discussion of scientific results and in their integration into traditional conceptions about the identity of each group; all these ideas are important elements in the complex conception of the human past ”, adds the Spanish researcher.

The team of experts from various disciplines, including archaeologists, anthropologists, conservatives and genetistas from 24 countries, has worked to frame a set of five guidelines that they consider to be solid and universally applicable and to which they have engaged in their own work:

  1. Comply with all the regulations of the places where they work and where the human remains originate.
  2. Prepare a detailed plan before beginning any study.
  3. Minimize damage to human remains.
  4. Ensure data is accessible after publication to allow critical reassessment of scientific findings.
  5. Collaborate with other stakeholders and ensure respect and sensitivity to stakeholder perspectives.

Cultural identity and the colonial legacy

The study points to the need to review global differences in the meaning of being indigenous. According to Lalueza-Fox, “it must be taken into account that the conception of being indigenous is not the same in different parts of the world; Attempts have often been made to apply the regulations on human samples that apply to the United States in Central and South America, which is still a form of paternalism, especially because in countries such as Mexico or Peru the indigenous heritage is already included in notions of National identity and therefore they do not need to import these regulations ”.

The new framework document seeks not to repeat them not very inclusive practices and unfair in the study of ancient DNA in human populations.

Being indigenous does not mean the same in different parts of the world; Attempts have often been made to enforce US human sample regulations in Central and South America

Carles Lalueza-Fox (IBE)

One of the greatest challenges is imposed by colonial legacies of human remains from Africa (among other places) collected unethically and often sent abroad for study.

The new agreement proposes that research teams work with both official depository institutions and academics from the country of origin when studying the remains of ancient individuals, and also that they participate in discussions about provenance, historical injustices, repatriation and restitution as part of their job.

“The document signed by leading researchers in ancient DNA commits us not to repeat mistakes from the colonial past and to generate scientific information that can be reverted to the benefit of indigenous groups and the development of countries of origin. In fact, this ethical guide should also be applied to genetic studies carried out in current populations ”, concludes Lalueza-Fox.


Alpaslan-Roodenberg, et al. “Ethics of DNA research on human remains: five globally applicable guidelines” Nature 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04008-x.

Source: Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE)

Rights: Creative Commons.


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