The topic of the webinar was palaeogenetics and the ethical challenges which rise from the study of ancient human DNA (aDNA), with particular focus on collections and data management.
Introductions were given by Eske Willerslev, Professor and Director, Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, Birgitte Skar, Associate professor and curator of Stone and bronzeage collections, Norwegian University of Science and Technology University Museum, Martin Furholt, Professor, Institute of Pre- and Protohistoric Archaeology, Kiel University and Kerstin Lidén, Professor, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University.
The introductions were followed by a panel discussion and a Q&A-session lead by Sean Denham, Osteologist at the University of Stavanger and chair of the National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains.
Bakground: ”The aDNA revolution”
The development of aDNA analysis, and the increasing accessibility of technologies and methodologies, have revolutionized the study of ancient human remains. Particularly over the past ten years, the rate of production in this field (i.e. the number of ancient genomes sequenced, the amount of ancient genetic data made publicly available and the number of publications presenting results) has increased dramatically. While the “aDNA revolution” has undoubtedly expanded our understanding of human history, it has also challenged ethical standards by, for example, putting strain on museum collections and requiring the management of complex genetic data sets from specialized fields, with which many institutions have limited experience. This makes it difficult for institutions to assess the impact of the research on their collections when evaluating requests for access to material.
Furthermore, historic collection practices in the field of physical anthropology have resulted in large collections of human remains, representing a wide range of cultures and time periods, kept in both private and public institutions around the world. The groups represented by these remains, for example indigenous peoples or ethnic minorities, may have strong opinions about the use of this material in research generally, and particular concerns about potential negative consequences of genetic research, but little power to impact the process.
What criteria should steer the decision-making process? What rights and responsibilities should curating institutions, palaeogeneticists and affected third parties retain regarding both material and data to ensure that aDNA research rests upon an ethically sound framework?
Read more on aDNA in this book review on Ancient DNA: The making of a Celebrity Science from The Magazine Research Ethics.
Read more about Norway’s National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains