Ethical debates on the study of ancient human DNA

Paleontology. Only twelve years ago, no complete genome of ancient humans was available. Today, there are more than 6,000 of them. This revolution in paleogenomics has completely changed the study of our distant past, of interbreeding with our deceased cousins, of migrations and populations, but also of the physiological specificities of certain current populations. – lactose intolerance, adaptations to altitude, ability to apnea, susceptibility to certain diseases and even perhaps resistance to coronaviruses. In a context of acute competition for access to samples, it has also rekindled discussions on the most ethical way to study human remains.

This is evidenced by the proposal of an international group of archaeologists, anthropologists, geneticists and conservators of fossil collections to implement a guide to good conduct that is “Applicable everywhere in the world” to guarantee a “Ethics of DNA research on human remains”. Featured in the journal Nature of October 21, these rules are the result of discussions conducted in November 2020, during a virtual workshop bringing together researchers from 31 countries. The proposals have been translated into 23 languages ​​to underline the international reach desired by the signatories, who undertake to implement them.

What is it about ? Five rules, which the layman might have the feeling that they are obvious. Here they are : “1. Researchers must ensure that all regulations have been followed in the places where they work and where human remains originate. 2. Researchers should prepare a detailed plan before starting any study. 3. Researchers must minimize damage to human remains. 4. Researchers should ensure that data are made available after publication to allow for critical review of scientific results. 5. Researchers should engage with stakeholders early in the study and ensure that they respect and take into account the views of other stakeholders. [descendants ou peuples indigènes par exemple]. »

Past breaches

Why recall what seems to go without saying? Because the players in the field are aware of past failures. A case poisoned relations between scientists and Native American tribes for more than twenty years, after the discovery in 1996 in Washington State of the “Kennewick Man”, an 8,500-year-old skeleton. The local tribes believed that the “Elder” belonged to their ancestors and demanded its return. They finally won their case and reburied the fossil on February 18, 2017, in an undisclosed location, after a DNA analysis proved that the members of the Colville tribe were indeed his closest current descendants.

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