Archaeogenetics: Five global ethical principles

20 Oct 2021

Scientists from all over the world including Philipp Stockhammer, archaeologist at LMU, have published guidelines for how human remains should be handled.

Analyzing ancient human genomes has proven to be a useful method to study relationships between people who lived in the past and populations living today. In the past decade alone, 6,000 individuals have been studied in this way.

Preparation of a bone sample

© Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI EVAN)

The journal Nature carried an unusual article recently. In it, 60 scientific researchers from the fields of archaeology, anthropology and genetics as well as museum curators from over 30 countries published five global ethical principles for how human remains should be handled. How did this initiative come about?
The initiative was ultimately long overdue and stems from the fact that archaeogenetics has in recent years not only yielded incredibly fascinating insights into the past but has also increasingly raised ethical questions. Including the question of how we should handle old bones.

Ancient DNA, the genetic material of the dead, has become important material for scientists.
Stockhammer: Yes, and it is a finite resource. In some countries there is very little of it. But the question is also grounded in certain political and social contexts. In recent years, genetic studies of this kind have come up against a great deal of resistance, particularly in the United States, from indigenous communities who said, “You are handling material that comes from our ancestors. You geneticists are virtually stealing this material.” This group was very politically active, which led to rules being created in the United States for how this material had to be dealt with. And they said that these rules should now apply globally. What they overlooked was the fact that these are specific North American rules that cannot apply globally because they do not reflect the diversity of this world.

And so you had to react to that?
Stockhammer: We came up with the idea, given that we were in a period when everyone was unable to travel, of discussing the topic in a global workshop on Zoom, on equal terms, on an equal footing. Many of the participants came from the Global South—they normally don’t have the opportunity to travel to the Global North. We had virtually all time zones of the world represented at this workshop. Ultimately, the pandemic was the enabler of this paper.

Presumably you spent days discussing it in online meetings?
You could say so. More than 60 authors from across all continents spent two days last November discussing it in online meetings, eight hours a day. For some it was in the middle of the night and for others the workshop began at three in the morning, but in the end everyone participated, whatever time zone they were in, between Vanuatu in Oceania and Harvard in the US. And after this workshop, we all agreed that we wanted to step into new territory, wanted to formulate rules for a global community. Rules that are decided not by one country for the rest of the world, but decided jointly by the community of concerned researchers worldwide. Ultimately, despite the diversity of regions and people involved, we came up with five global principles. Those are the messages we want to get across.

Working in the clean room


Let’s move on to the content. What are the biggest challenges you face when dealing with ancient DNA?
The main point of discussion was the attitude of American indigenous peoples. They proclaimed years ago that no geneticist should be allowed to do research on the human remains of long-dead people in North America without first asking the communities concerned. They said they are their ancestors.

Isn’t that attitude understandable?
I suppose it is. But for those communities, all it takes is a perceived kinship with the past. They also demanded that the results of scientific work not be published if they contradicted their feeling about what the expected result would be. But that does not sit well in the scientific mindset. Of course, researchers need to have conversations with local communities, but it cannot be the case that whenever unexpected results emerge about, say, someone’s ancestry, we are not allowed to publish them. We can’t only publish results that match people’s individual ideas of the past of the communities involved.

You stress that the situation in the US is special. In what way?
Particularly the European community, including my own, can’t help but scream internally when they hear them say, “I feel that these are my ancestors from the deep past.” If the current North American rules were applied to Germany, virtually every person here could say, “I feel I am an ancient German or an ancient Celt, and no paper on prehistoric human remains from Germany can be published without my consent.” The American rules cannot provide a global framework.

Sounds like a difficult discussion.
Yes, we had some very intense debates: Is it okay to publish DNA data that do not match what an indigenous group believes the results should show? And even if a group agrees in advance, can you publish results if they would actually cause significant cultural harm to a group? What we wanted to do was to provide a global framework for all of those questions.

If we look at the five rules that have been formulated, they state that local laws should be observed, that a detailed research plan should be made in advance, that damage should be kept to a minimum, that the data collected should be made freely available and that there should be cooperation with local interest groups. At first glance, this doesn’t sound all that dramatic. Is it not self-evident that researchers should abide by such rules?
You would think so. But in fact this has not been the case in recent years. What we have seen in actual fact is that some European and American researchers—especially in African countries but also in other regions—had a “take the sample and run” mentality. There are people who just break off a piece of bone from a skull and offer it to researchers. Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig or myself, we regularly get contacted by dubious people offering samples against payment or co-authorship on publications. But it happens to other geneticists too, and there have been groups that have actually accepted such samples. We would never do that at our institute. But there are also researchers who simply take samples without having obtained the necessary permissions in advance. That’s why we need to have these ethical rules that everyone commits to.

Archaeogenetics is now one of the most important fields of archaeology, and the boom is sure to continue. What do you hope to gain from having the ethical guidelines?
First of all, it was simply about time that everyone publicly committed to these global rules, even if many researchers have long been complying with these standards already. We now hope to initiate discussions and persuade other labs to sign up to the standards we’ve proposed.

DNA analytics in the lab


But how do you plan to enforce the guidelines?
We can imagine two things here. One is actually that, in the future, journals like Nature will say that they’ll only accept publications if they comply with these guidelines. We don’t have a commitment from Nature yet. Beyond that, our paper is meant to spark a global discourse. This is not about devaluing anyone’s perspective; we want to show that the world is diverse and that a diverse group can still agree on global rules.

You’ve already touched upon this indirectly: The initiators, including yourself, are mostly from Western countries. Isn’t it possible that such a paper could be seen as cultural appropriation, in the sense that scientists from the West are elevating themselves to the role of representing the interests of indigenous peoples?
I wouldn’t see it that way. We just had the right network to be able to invite people from around the world, then we moderated the meeting, did a lot of the editing work, and finally submitted the article to Nature, but just the writing of it was a very global, democratic act. All of the authors actively contributed to the article.

Philipp Stockhammer | © LMU

The official press invitations have been sent out exclusively by participating researchers from the countries of the Global South. Why?
We decided against a Harvard or Max Planck or LMU press release and said instead that each country, each curator should specifically inform their own community about it. And to make sure that the community also understands it, we had the article translated into all those different languages. It’s being published simultaneously in 20 languages, because not everyone can read English. Also, Nature has decided to make the article open access indefinitely from the moment of publication. And that’s beyond Nature’s normal policy.

Finally, a personal question: In your view, what is the responsibility of a researcher who deals with material, with bones, with the teeth of dead people whom they have never met?
I think it’s this ability to see both aspects, namely that on the one hand it’s a human being and ultimately, therefore, always something special, not just an object. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean you can’t also deal scientifically with people from the past. Just as we take tissue samples today and work on and with people in the medical sphere, so we can also work on and with people from the past. In doing so, we must take care to be highly sensitive in the language we use and the way we handle these finds. People from the present can tell you when something doesn’t suit them, people from the past cannot. It’s important to look at who represents their concerns today and to involve these people in such a way that they feel a part of it. That is what this article is all about.

Interview: Hubert Filser

Philipp Stockhammer is Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at LMU. Since December 2016 he is also Co-Direktor of the Max-Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean at the Max-Planck-Institute for evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

Ethics of DNA Research on Human Remains: Five Globally Applicable Guidelines. Philipp Stockhammer et al. Nature 2021.
The paper has also been published in twenty other languages in free access parallel to the English Verson.
Here you find statements of some of the co-authors.

What are you looking for?