Request concerning the project “To Micro from Macro: Evolutionary Causes of Modern Human Birth” (2024/8)

Statement from National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains, 17th April 2024.

On 20 January 2024, the National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains (Human Remains Committee) received a request from Mark Grabowski, PhD, School of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University. He requests to study medieval skeletal material at the Biological Anthropology Collection (BAS), University of Oslo as part of a data collection trip to acquire preliminary data in support of a project titled “To Micro from Macro: Evolutionary Causes of Modern Human Birth”.  

Liverpool John Moores University is responsible for the project and funds the data collection trip. Listed as collaborators are Dr Geir Bolstad (Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Norway), Dr Kjetil Voje (Natural History Museum, Oslo, Norway), Dr Thomas Hansen (University of Oslo, Norway), Dr Rui Martiniano (Liverpool John Moores University) and Dr Arthur Porto (Florida Natural History Museum, University of Florida, US). 

The project has applied for access to the material with the Research Analysis Approval Board at the Museum of Cultural History (KHM), University of Oslo. 

The request to the Human Remains Committee includes the committee’s submission form, project description and ethical self-assessment. The request was evaluated by the Human Remains Committee in its 18 March 2024 meeting. 

Project purpose 

The purpose of this request is to acquire preliminary data from medieval skeletal material at BAS in support of a project on the causes of modern human birthing difficulties. The data collection is part of “a series of museum visits to collect pelvic data (capturing the birth canal and other pelvic dimensions) from worldwide populations to test hypotheses on the role of adaptation to the environment in modern human birthing difficulties.” Grabowski plans to visit museum collections worldwide to test his hypotheses on data from a diverse set of populations from different environments. 

The main aim of the project is to study why birth is so dangerous and difficult in modern humans. Grabowski writes: “Despite decades of study and a wealth of hypotheses, the causes of modern human birthing difficulties remain unclear. My project aims to both build a new comparative methods framework, integrating phenotypic, genetic, demographic, and environmental data, and then use this framework to reveal novel insights into the evolutionary forces shaping modern human birth”.  

Material and method 

The project requests the study of skeletal material from the medieval period, stored at BAS. The Norwegian material is described as vital to the project: “Medieval Norwegian archaeological remains are unique in that they were populations adapted to a high latitude (and cold) environment”. The material focus will be the pelvis (both hip bones and sacrum), with additional measurements from the femur to provide an estimate of body size. The project sets 20 male and 20 females as the ideal number of specimens for each population. 

The project will use photogrammetry, the production of 3-D models from photographs, as a method to collect the pelvic data. This method is non-destructive. Grabowski argues that the method is “a cost-effective and rapid alternative to laser scanning and was shown to be an efficient and accurate approach for measuring complex morphological traits following established protocols including those validated by co-authors and myself”.  

To supplement photogrammetry and double check 3-D models, the project will take caliper measurements. The project will utilize ALPACA, “a state-of-the-art automated landmarking solution for 3-D data, which was primarily developed by a collaborator on this project”. 

Grabowski states that he has employed the methods in numerous data collection trips over the last 15 years in Europe, Africa, and the US.  

Ethical self-assessment

The ethical self-assessment considers several aspects of the project. 
The project will be carried out according to described, international standards while also meeting local requirements and the ethics principles of the Guidelines for Ethical Research on Human Remains. Information on and assessment of provenance related to all material, cf. location and time of discovery. 

The project plans to share the benefits of the research with local communities and follows “the Global code of conduct for research in resource-poor settings”. 

The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in relation to the 3D construction, “respects and adheres to the principles outlined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the EU Treaties.” 

All 3-D images will be used only for the approved project and not shared without permission. 

The project expects to publish results in peer-reviewed academic journals using some of the data before the end of the project (2025-2030). 

The committee’s evaluation 

In the research ethical evaluation of the request, the committee takes its Guidelines for Ethical Research on Human Remains (2022) as a starting point. The committee may also refer to other national and international research ethics guidelines where relevant.  

The ethics self-assessment is thorough and presents high standards and knowledge of relevant sets of ethical principles and code of conducts in the field. 

The project leader has not yet seen the material and does not have detailed knowledge about the material. The committee understands that the project has tried to obtain more detailed information from BAS but has not yet received such information. 

The committee finds it difficult to see how the data set will be sufficient to provide answers to the research questions put forward. However, as the project leader is experienced, from a solid professional environment and the project has a robust framework, the committee has confidence that the project will be carried out in a professional manner with high ethical standards.  

It further strengthens the request that the methods are non-invasive. 
The committee has no objections to the project, assuming the proper permissions are obtained from BAS and KHM.  


The committee recommends the data collection of medieval material at BAS as it is described in the project description and request.