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Journal Article

Community partnerships are fundamental to ethical ancient DNA research


Nayak,  Ayushi
Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Kowal, E., Weyrich, L. S., Argüelles, J. M., Bader, A. C., Colwell, C., Cortez, A. D., et al. (2023). Community partnerships are fundamental to ethical ancient DNA research. HGG Advances: Human Genetics and Genomics Advances, 4(2): 100161. doi:10.1016/j.xhgg.2022.100161.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000C-43BD-4
The ethics of the scientific study of Ancestors has long been debated by archaeologists, bioanthropologists, and, more recently, ancient DNA (aDNA) researchers. This article responds to the article “Ethics of DNA research on human remains: five globally applicable guidelines” published in 2021 in Nature by a large group of aDNA researchers and collaborators. We argue that these guidelines do not sufficiently consider the interests of community stakeholders, including descendant communities and communities with potential, but yet unestablished, ties to Ancestors. We focus on three main areas of concern with the guidelines. First is the false separation of “scientific” and “community” concerns and the consistent privileging of researcher perspectives over those of community members. Second, the commitment of the guidelines’ authors to open data ignores the principles and practice of Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Further, the authors argue that involving community members in decisions about publication and data sharing is unethical. We argue that excluding community perspectives on “ethical” grounds is convenient for researchers, but it is not, in fact, ethical. Third, we stress the risks of not consulting communities that have established or potential ties to Ancestors, using two recent examples from the literature. Ancient DNA researchers cannot focus on the lowest common denominator of research practice, the bare minimum that is legally necessary. Instead, they should be leading multidisciplinary efforts to create processes to ensure communities from all regions of the globe are identified and engaged in research that affects them. This will often present challenges, but we see these challenges as part of the research, rather than a distraction from the scientific endeavor. If a research team does not have the capacity to meaningfully engage communities, questions must be asked about the value and benefit of their research.