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  Anthropology, Genetic Diversity, and Ethics 
 
 
A workshop at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies 
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee  
 
 
 
Dennis O'Rourke*
[Participant Information]

Well, unlike Rika, I'm going to take a very low-tech approach.  I have no slides and no overheads; my students tell me that I'd much rather talk than work anyway, and I suspect they're right.  But I also think it's appropriate that the issues that I want to talk about are ones that really require discussion and communication, simply talking about them at some length.  Rika alluded to some of the ethical issues involved in identifying who to consult with respect to seeking permission to conduct research on human remains.  It's a non-trivial problem, especially from the scientific perspective, not necessarily from other perspectives; but from a scientific perspective there may well be preliminary evidence that there's no identifiable group of descendants that would make a logical candidate group from whom to seek permission.  There may not be.  All geneticists know that populations are fluid; they're not constant, and and so often implausible to think that populations we define at a moment in time -- today -- correlate in any direct way with populations as concrete entities in the past.  At best, what we're really trying to assess are degrees of relationships, and continuity of lineages perhaps, which aside from technical issues, is another reason that mitochondrial DNA has been the molecule of choice for those interested in looking at genetic variation in the past. 

I really want to talk about three examples from my experience in requesting permission to do work on ancient materials.  The study samples come from different geographic areas, different ecological conditions as well, and have been analyzed over the course of several years.  I'm going to do them in reverse order, from my perspective in reverse order.  That is, Ill discuss the most recent group recent project, I should say -- that we are beginning to work on in my lab, and then talk about the ones that I began earlier.  I do this partly because I think we're refining the kinds of questions that we wish to ask in ancient DNA studies, and partly because I want to emphasize, at least in my experience, the changing nature of the dialogue; seeking permissions from indigenous populations, whether or not there was prior evidence or belief that the remains are in any way directly related to the contemporary groups from the same area. 

I should point out up front that I have a slight bias; and that is, it seems to me that anthropologists have had a penchant for looking the at archaeological record, recognizing some sort of change in material culture, and hypothesizing that it represents some sort of major population movement and replacement.  One way of addressing the issue of population replacement is whether or not biological genetic differences between earlier and later peoples in an area can be demonstrated.  My original interest in ancient DNA studies was stimulated by that particular kind of question.  But because of many of the issues raised by ancient DNA research, especially with respect to ancestral-descendant relationships between modern populations and archaeological samples, populations that lived in the past, it became clear to me, and many others, that there was a real problem, a genetic problem, in identifying some sort of genetic signature of ancestral-descent relationships.  One of the things that had not been looked at was a clear example, actually any example, of modern population and in ancient population where there was little question and little dispute that the ancient individuals were in fact the ancestors of the modern population. 

The current project that my collaborators (Michael Crawford and Dixie West of the University of Kansas) and a student (Geoff Hayes of the University of Utah) have recently begun is rather larger in scope than earlier studies for this very reason, and has been initiated in collaboration and with the approval of the Aleut Corporation and the Aleut/Pribilof Island Association (APIA).  In the Aleutian Islands the question of biological continuity between ancestral and descendent populations can be addressed, and we have recently formulated a research program of simultaneous study of genetic variation in the contemporary Aleut population, as well as a study of ancient DNA from skeletal material that was excavated in the Aleutians decades ago, and which has been curated in museums since recovery.  We proposed this project, and the anthropological and genetic reasons we were interested in pursuing it, to the Aleutian Corporation. 

Dixie West, one of the collaborating investigators on this project, is an archaeologist who has for several years been conducting archaeological research with the Aleut Corporation in the Aleutian Islands, and has a long-term working relationship with the Corporation and the APIA, and first broached the subject of biological studies with the Corporation and Aleut community members.  Following a receptive answer to that query, Crawford and I, as anthropological geneticists, and I became involved and sent a summary of the kind of research we would be interested in conducting, the rationale for it, to the Aleut Corporation.  It was reviewed by the Aleut Corporation, and they responded favorably.  That is, they felt that they also had interests in learning about the same kind of issues.  I believed they viewed it, as I do, primarily as an exercise in population history, to learn more about ancestral-descendant relationships in the Aleutian Islands.  We subsequently met with representatives of the Corporation in Anchorage and discussed issues attendant to the research.  Subsequently we formulated a formal proposal that would be submitted for funding. We provided this full proposal to the Aleut Corporation.  After a period of time, the Corporation notified us that they supported the goals of the research project as stated in the proposal, and provided a letter of permission to proceed with the project -- if funding could be secured.  I learned a lot from that kind of dialogue, which occurred over a long period of time. 

A similar, but alternative, experience, came with respect to a project also having to do identifying a genetic signature of population replacement, and this is a project, utilizing material from the Eastern Arctic is just now getting underway. Someone mentioned earlier this morning.  the Northwest Territories in Canada has been subdivided, and a new province, Nunavut, becomes an operating entity on April 1st, if I remember the dates correctly.  But prior to that date, the governing structure of that province certainly has already been established, and is in place.  My doctoral student, Geoff Hayes, who works on the Aleut project, has related interests in the prehistory of the eastern arctic.  We new that based on pronounced change in material culture, archaeologists had hypothesized a population replacements in the eastern arctic, and that prehistoric skeletal samples that might permit evaluating this hypothesis had been excavated several decades ago. These skeletal materials are curated at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.  We contacted the museum to a) learn policies regarding access to collections, and b) solicit advice on who appropriate indigenous representatives would be to request permissions to conduct the research we were interested in.  The Museum of Civilization contacted the Inuit Heritage Trust, Inc., on our behalf.  A series of communications took place: a preliminary proposal; a formal proposal; responses to queries, and revisions to each proposal. All of this was conducted with the Museum acting as intermediary proposals were submitted to the Museum, which transmitted them to the Trust.  An archaeologist, employed by the Inuit Heritage Trust attended meetings and answered questions regarding our proposed research, and conveyed questions and concerns voiced by the Inuit Heritage Trust to us via the Museum.  We responded to such queries via a reverse path.  Despote the multilayered communication system, the Trust had few concerns regarding the research, and no serious objections.  In a relatively short amount of time, they approved the project, and granted permission to sample the skeletal material for ancient DNA research, with three restrictions.  And at each step expressed interest in seeing the research go forward, not only voicing no objections, but essentially giving permission, but only under certain conditions, and the conditions I found quite interesting. 

The first restriction had to do with the amount of skeletal material to be collected.  We had been very specific regarding the amount of material we required for our analyses, and we were not to sample more than this amount per specimen.  This posed no problem, since we had no plans to sample more than that requested.  Parenthetically, this was an item of discussion with the Aleut Corporation as well, and we certainly agreed to collect no more skeletal material than we specified in our formal request.  Consequently, we are very careful to document the amount of skeletal material sampled, and never exceed the approved amount.  The second requirement was that any publications or written work emanating from the project be given directly to the Nunayat. The third -- and to me most interesting, the one that frankly pleased me the most -- was that in addition to copies of publications to be provided to the Nunavut, a final report of the project would be summarized in non-technical language, and translated into the Inuktitut (Inuit) language.  This translated summary of the project final report would also be filed with the Inuit Heritage Trust.  The reasons for this were quite logical and appealing: most Nunavut are not scientists, and therefore a general summary rather than technical publications would be more accessible, and most are more comfortable in a language other than English, the language I write in.  This seemed imminently sensible to me, and I also took it as a genuine interest in the results of the project.  The Inuit Heritage Trust agreed to provide names of translators we could contact to perform the translations of the summary report.  We made the decision that we would prepare translated summaries of reports we plan to submit for publication, and solicit comment from the Trust prior to publication.  Both the eastern and arctic Aleut material has just begun to be analyzed. 

I should also point out -- this is sort of a technical issue for those who write grants, particularly in ancient DNA research, or in other areas of biology or genetics, simply are more to be supportable if preliminary data illustrating that the feasibility of the project is available.   This can be quite problematic for ancient DNA research, since formal permissions to conduct a project do not usually cover preliminary work required prior to submission of a research proposal.  In the case of discussions with the Aleut Corporation, we made two requests.  One was approval for the formal, full proposal that we wished to submit for funding, but we also asked for permission to take a small number of small samples to do a pilot project, the results of which would be incorporated into the final proposal.  So they actually gave two stages of permission. Once the pilot data were generated, making it possible to do the project, those data were reported in the grant proposal, which was reviewed and approved by the Aleut Corporation. 

I'm going to stop, because we're way past time, and I apologize.  Just to summarize, I think there is considerable diversity of opinion regarding how to approach permissions to analyze ancient DNA -- by the way, sometimes the answer is no, and that's that.  But there seems to be considerable differences in style and approach in how to handle such requests, how to handle responses to and from the scientific investigators and the indigenous communities to whom the requests are presented, and a good deal of variation in the outcome.  And with that, I should stop.  We'll be happy to take questions. 

*This talk has been edited for web publishing by the author.

 
 
 
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