On November 17, 2022, Norway’s National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains hosted a webinar about ethical challenges in ancient DNA (aDNA) research of archaeological human remains.
Museum collections and data management were the main themes, but other hot topics emerged, such as long-standing communication problems between geneticists, archaeologists, and museum curators, and the consequences of misinterpretation (or, overinterpretation) of history using aDNA evidence.
The webinar was chaired by Sean Denham from the University of Stavanger and the Norwegian Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains. Guest speakers were Eske Willerslev (Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen), Birgitte Skar (Norwegian University of Science and Technology University Museum), Martin Furholt (Institute of Pre- and Protohistoric Archaeology, Kiel University), and Kerstin Lidén (Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University).
Misalignment of interests
Misalignment of interests was a common thread throughout the seminar, although not always explicitly. In my view, thinking more carefully about “misalignments” can be a useful way to reflect about aDNA “ethical entanglements” of research on human remains. By stepping back and allowing ourselves to think and observe, we may be able to unpack and start addressing the multiple dimensions that make this topic so challenging. More broadly, it allows us to reflect on the challenges of interdisciplinarity, the plurality of the past, and importantly: who sets the agenda?
Professor Willerslev kicked-off the webinar by outlining some of the multiple groups involved in aDNA research – the aDNA data producers (the labs), the data consumers (archaeologists, anthropologists, also the labs), those who control access to material, and those who curate the material (not necessarily the same as those who control the material) – and how different interests can collide.
One simple example is the sampling of archaeological human bones. While the aDNA researcher seeks to sample as much as possible to increase the chances of obtaining the best possible DNA, the museum curator has the role to conserve the specimen, while at the same time, the museum is in the service of society that researches heritage.
Are we doing these things because they are scientific relevant or just because we can?Professor Kerstin Lidén
Misalignment issues can also emerge from different approaches to data storage and ownership, data access and reuse of results, or data commercialization, as highlighted by Associate Professor Skar. It may even include issues of authorship and dilemmas regarding open access. While open access has been the golden standard in the natural sciences, it may carry important ethical concerns regarding collections and data.
Another example of misalignment of interests, may not be as straightforward, but it is of fundamental importance not only when outlining research projects, but also on how scientists use and publish the data. When discussing the nature of aDNA research on the borderland between the natural sciences and humanities, Professor Lidén asked the important question: Are we doing these things because they are scientific relevant or just because we can?
Responsible ethical sampling
Expectations can also be misaligned. Finding common interests between the involved parties is a good start. However, it is also important to be clear about what can be achieved with the different methods and allocated resources.
Responsible sampling requires clear communication and understanding about what can and cannot be done with the different methods. aDNA data can be produced in different ways (i.e., mtDNA, genome wide capture, whole-genome shotgun sequencing), which in turn will set the boundaries about what can be investigated, now and in the future. As some of the speakers in the webinar highlighted, it is imperative to have a basic knowledge about what is at stake.
Even when applying the best possible methods, it is important to understand that some questions may require extra funding, highly specialized staff, and additional resources. As highlighted by Associate Professor Skar, in general museums are pleased to have the collections re-activated with new research, and aDNA projects can revitalize collections that have been sleeping in museum collections for decades. Alignment of expectations requires active participation in the research with critical input – but it may also be fruitful to collaborate by writing project grants together.
Responsible ethical sampling requires seeking the fine balance between the impact on collections and the outcome of knowledge. It requires willingness to apply interdisciplinarity at the highest level.
Some thoughts from a webinar
In just two-hours, this session addressed these and other important topics such as the Ethical dimensions of the use of aDNA data for archaeological interpretation and narrative building by Professor Furholt. If you read this far, I strongly recommend watching the full recording. I am hoping this can be the topic of a full-day conference sooner than later!
Links mentioned in the text
FEATURED IMAGE: The human DNA model takes on a double helix shape. PublicDomainPictures, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.