An ethical guide to respecting human remains
Thanks to new mass sequencing technologies, in 2010 the first ancient human genome, from a mummy from Greenland. So far, more than 5,000 prehistoric and historical human genomes have been published and a recent work (still unpublished) provides more than 800 new ones in a single article.
Not only is there a quantity, but they are also getting closer to the present time, with which it is possible to establish links of ancestry and maybe, genealogical with current populations. Clearly, a widely accepted ethical framework is needed to continue conducting these studies that may affect fundamental identity perceptions for today’s human populations.
So far, more than 5,000 prehistoric and historical human genomes have been published, and recent work as yet unpublished provides more than 800 new ones.
Standards in DNA research
A few months ago, a group of 64 researchers from 24 different countries, among which were the highest world authorities on paleogenetics, as well as experts in ethic and in museum conservation, we met to agree on minimum standards in ancient DNA research that we were committed to upholding.
These standards have been published today in the magazine Nature, as well as translations into more than 20 different languages, carried out by the authors themselves. I have intervened in the Spanish translation and I have also done the Catalan one.
In this framework of indisputable global repercussion, we propose five points to follow for future studies of Ancient DNA:
1. Comply with the regulations of the countries where the remains originate and are preserved and those of the research centers themselves where they are analyzed.
2. Prepare a detailed work plan before beginning the study.
3. Minimize damage (which, although small, is unavoidable) to human remains.
4. Undertake that the genetic data obtained are in the public domain.
5. Collaborate with interest groups to guarantee respect and sensitivity to the native groups involved.
Experts in paleogenetics, ethics and museum conservation met to agree on minimum standards in ancient DNA research, for example, comply with the regulations of the countries where the remains originate and are preserved
Respect indigenous cultures
The study also points to the need to review the conceptions of being indigenous and not to export regulations that have been created in the US as if they had to be applied to other countries in an uncritical way. For example, there are countries like Mexico and Peru, where indigenous heritage is integrated into current notions of national identity and where importing these North American regulations could be interpreted as a form of paternalism.
In the paper, leading researchers in the field we promise not to repeat mistakes of the colonial past, which are especially evident in African countries, and to create data repositories in the countries of origin, as well as to revert benefits of the research to the groups involved and make them able to participate actively in discussions about the meaning of scientific results.
It must be taken into account that these palaeogenetic results can be integrated into traditional conceptions of the identity of each group and that all these ideas are important elements in the complex conception of humanity’s past.
In the paper, the leading researchers in the field pledge not to repeat mistakes from the colonial past, which are especially evident in African countries.
The basic underlying idea is that ancient human remains should be treated with the I respect they deserve: they belong to people who existed and whose legacy in history is largely their genetic history, which can be integrated into a broad vision of a common humanity. In fact, these regulations should also apply to current human genetic studies, which often present similar problems of dialogue with indigenous communities.
Carles Lalueza-Fox es paleogeneticist and principal investigator of the palaeogenomics laboratory at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE) of the CSIC and the Pompeu Fabra University.
Rights: Creative Commons.