The field of ancient DNA, which combines archaeology and anthropology with cutting-edge genetics, is requiring scientists to have frank conversations about when research is justified and who it benefits.
In 1996, two college students waded into Washington State’s Columbia River, keen to watch the day’s hydroplane races. Roughly 10 feet from shore, however, one of the students stumbled upon something even more attention-grabbing: a human skull, which radiocarbon dating would soon reveal was roughly 8,500 years old, one of the oldest ever found in the Americas. Over several trips, archaeologists pieced together a nearly complete skeleton consisting of more than 300 bones, referred to thereafter as the Ancient One or Kennewick Man.
This fascinating case and the furore it caused, may have started in the Nineties, but its ramifications are rumbling on. It can serve as a ‘good’ (though to call the case terrible would be more apt) of how lengthy legal arguments can cause deep and enduring harm for First People. This research may not reach the technical definition of human research, but it raises issues of respect, engagement, sovereignty and justice. I have used this and other controversies for a piece in the Research Ethics Monthly about the need for ethics guidance beyond the remit of Human Research Ethics. We have included links to quite a few related items.
All of that hinged on the narrative surrounding how the skeleton came to lie along the riverbank in the first place. Early on, the archeologist who recovered the remains, James C. Chatters, interpreted the skull’s morphology and the presence of nearby 19th century tools as evidence that he might be looking at an early European settler. This idea was supported by certain “Caucasoid” features, including the shape of the skull, he tells The Scientist, but notes that it “was not immediately clear when he came from” and that the term was meant only as a descriptor, and not as an identification. When radiocarbon dating showed the man to be much older, Chatters was legitimately stumped. “All my life, I’ve been looking for this person,” he says, in reference to his career studying early North American history. “I finally caught up with him, and he turned around and was not who I expected him to be. And so the question is why?”
But by suggesting that Kennewick Man may have been European (later assessments also likened him to ancient Polynesians or the Ainu people of Japan), Chatters was undermining the claim of Indigenous groups that the remains belonged to them under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which stipulates that remains must be given to a tribe if it can prove the individual was culturally related. An interim court ruling in 2004 denied repatriation under NAGPRA, and in a contentious move, scientists were given access to the bones, resulting in numerous papers and a 2014 book. (Chatters was not part of the lawsuit, but did ultimately study the remains and published his own book in 2002.)