Including Indigenous groups in studies of ancient remains makes for better science, say researchers

A new article in the journal Science urges researchers to connect with local Indigenous communities when designing studies on genetic material from ancient human remains.

Article in Science urges remains be treated 'not as artifacts but as human relatives who deserve respect'

A plastic casting of the skull from the bones known as Kennewick Man. The ancient skeleton was found in a river in Washington state in the 1990s. A DNA study helped resolve a long-running dispute over its ancestry and custody. (The Associated Press)

A new article in the journal Science urges researchers to connect with local Indigenous communities when designing studies on genetic material from ancient human remains.

The science of paleogenomics — studying the DNA of ancient life — has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few decades but researchers are still grappling with some of the ethical dilemmas it raises.

Dr. Jessica Bardill, an assistant professor at Concordia University in Montreal and one of the article's seven co-authors, said involving Indigenous communities in research is a win-win situation.

"What we've tried to outline is that not only is community engagement better for the community, which is a pretty well understood concept, but that it makes for better science," she said.

The article "Advancing the ethics of paleogenomics" says mutually beneficial relationships can develop from such engagement. For example, analyses can help prove ancestral ties to regions, assisting with land claim negotiations, or Indigenous groups can help researchers with context in interpreting results, through family and oral histories.

The article lists seven questions that should be considered prior to studies being conducted. Though the questions are aimed primarily at researchers themselves, it's hoped they also are taken into consideration by boards that approve research, bodies that fund it and the journals that publish the results.

Recent controversies

The article cites examples where researchers did not have buy-in from Indigenous communities, including that of Kennewick Man, also known as the Ancient One. In that case, studies were done on the 8,500 year-old remains against the wishes of the local Indigenous community where the remains were found in Washington state.

Paleogenomic analysis eventually proved a DNA relationship with the local Indigenous community, and the remains were repatriated, after 20 years. 

The article recommends that human remains be treated "not as 'artifacts' but as human relatives who deserve respect."

Though this cultural paradigm shift is happening in many institutions, there is evidence that the attitude that human remains are simply objects for study and there doesn't need to be consent or engagement persists.

Bardill pointed to a recent controversy after the publication of a genetic analysis on the mummified remains of a Chilean infant. Chilean scientists say the study was unethical and the country's government is investigating whether the remains were removed illegally.

Though the case is not necessarily tied to an Indigenous community, Bardill said it illustrates the limits of laws meant to protect human remains, and how studies with questionable ethics may only get challenged after publication.

Seven questions

As legal requirements vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and so do communities' concerns, the seven questions posed by the article are aimed at helping researchers tailor an approach that works for everyone involved in the project.

Dr. Jessica Bardill, an associate professor at Concordia University in Montreal, was one of the article's lead authors. (Concordia University)

The questions address issues like identifying Indigenous communities that should be approached, the potential harms and benefits to the community from the research, community participation and recognition, and what happens to the samples after the study is completed. This applies not only to newly-found remains from Indigenous communities but those still kept by institutions.

"Even if a researcher has taken samples from an ancestor that's been disinterred and kept away from the community that doesn't mean that they can't do research now in terms of finding out where is this ancestor from and whom should they engage," she said.

"And so that's a lot of what the seven questions are about — helping guide a researcher to what do you need to ask to find who to engage and how to build the relationship with them."

In cases where remains are culturally unidentified, the authors recommend starting with nearby Indigenous groups as they are connected to and care for the land where they live, including the burial places of ancestors, even if they're not biological descendants.

Bardill said the idea for the article and its seven questions stemmed from discussions at workshops by the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics consortium. The group's aim is to build Indigenous capacity in scientific literacy. University students take part as well as members of communities where collaborative research is being done, so they can learn about the science and what it can and can't do.

Following several years of activities in the U.S. and New Zealand, the group will hold a Canadian workshop at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., this year.


Jennifer Geens is a reporter and copy editor with CBC Indigenous based in Saskatoon. She has written previously for CBC Saskatoon and CBC North.