George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

New ethical guidelines encourage scientists to engage with indigenous communities before studying ancient remains

Thu, 04/26/2018

LAWRENCE — A collaborative group of indigenous and nonindigenous scholars encourages scientists to meaningfully engage with indigenous communities on paleogenomics research, in a new series of ethical guidelines published Thursday in the journal Science.

"Right now, there are inconsistent or no regulations for working with ancient ancestors," said University of Illinois anthropology professor Ripan Malhi, senior author of the paper. "And there are no requirements for working with descendant communities, even though new scientific findings relating to their ancestors can have serious implications for them."

Jennifer Raff, KU assistant professor of anthropology, is a co-author on the paper. Raff studies the genomes of ancient and contemporary populations in order to understand questions about human history. To address interests and concerns of the community, she advocates for researchers to hold discussions with members of indigenous communities before research involving their ancestors begins.

Raff said her own experience in working with indigenous groups has come directly from her postdoctoral training with her mentors: Dennis O'Rourke, KU Foundation Distinguished Professor of Anthropology; Geoffrey Hayes, associate professor of medicine and endocrinology at the University of Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, and Deborah Bolnick, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas and another co-author on the paper.

"They have all been scrupulous in involving indigenous groups in their study design, interpreting the results for publication and making sure there is an ongoing dialogue with communities, rather than just swooping in, taking samples and leaving," Raff said. "For the most part, the best researchers are already following these guidelines and can serve as good examples. Our paper is aimed at others who might be well-intentioned but perhaps confused about how they can go about conducting engaged research. These guidelines are to help them understand why consultation is so crucial and how to do it."

The group recommends that paleogenomics researchers apply principles in the ethical framework already in place for working with living human subjects — respect for autonomy, beneficence and justice — to the study of remains of ancient peoples.

They offer guiding questions for paleogenomic researchers to consider when designing a study, including:

  • In the absence of known descendant or culturally affiliated communities, which indigenous peoples, tied to land where the ancestors were buried, will be consulted?
  • Who is the appropriate community body or representative to initiate discussions with about any paleogenomic analyses?
  • What are potential ethical pitfalls of this research or harms that could affect the community? What cultural concerns need to be considered?
  • How will the community benefit from this research?
  • How will the community provide input on the study design and interpretation of results?
  • What happens after the project ends? Who will have access to the data? How will remaining samples from ancestors be handled, stored, returned or reburied?

Raff said the guidelines are crucial in showing respect to indigenous communities and their ancestors. She said in her own experience having a stronger level of communication also can improve scientific research.

"We find again and again that incorporating indigenous knowledge into research strengthens the science," Raff said. " And importantly, if stakeholder communities are uncomfortable with paleogenomics research involving their ancestors, we need to respect their wishes."

Nanibaa Garrison, a bioethics professor at Seattle Children's Research Institute and the University of Washington School of Medicine and a co-author of the report, said engaging communities at the outset is critical for understanding their concerns or questions about research involving ancient relatives.

"Without feedback from the community," she said, "scientific interpretations remain one-sided and inherently biased."

Media interested in additional information about the study, can contact Raff,, 785-864-2633; Malhi,, 217-265-0721; or, Garrison,, 206-987-6894.

Top photo: A view of the Delta and Tanana rivers, by Jeremy Austin, via WikiCommons. Jennifer Raff, KU assistant professor of anthropology, was part of a 2015 study that found the DNA of two infants buried in Alaska showed the genetic diversity of the early Berinigian population. The researchers conducted the excavation and genetic analysis of the Upward Sun River site with the full consent and permission of the Healy Lake Tribal Council and Tanana Chiefs Conference in Alaska. Raff recently co-authored a set of ethical guidelines in Science that encourages scientists to meaningfully engage with indigenous communities on paleogenomics research.

Second photo: A group of indigenous students working in a paleogenomics lab. Credit: Rick W. A. Smith, Science journal


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