As Shane brought up yesterday, the sequencing of the genome of a toddler who died 12,600 years ago in Montana is big news not only for archaeologists, but also for Native communities. The results of the study of interest show genetic connections between Siberian, Clovis, and living indigenous North and South American peoples. This has major potential implications for assigning affiliations to ancient human remains, which has long been a cornerstone of NAGPRA. As far as I can tell based on the currently available coverage, the study also seems to demonstrate that archaeological research and respect for Native remains are not incompatible. Nature just posted a follow-up report on this topic — check it out and let us know what you think about it. I need to get back to dissertating/hitting my head against the wall, so for now, here are just a few quotes from the piece, in the order that they appear, that I thought were worth thinking about…
“Eske Willerslev, a palaeobiologist at the University of Copenhagen who led the latest study, attempted to involve Native American communities. And so he embarked on a tour of Montana’s Indian reservations last year, talking to community members to explain his work and seek their support. ‘I didn’t want a situation where the first time they heard about this study was when it’s published,’ he says.”
“[Several years before the present study], Sarah Anzick sought the advice of local tribes over the Clovis boy, but she could not reach a consensus with the tribes on what to do. She gave up on the idea, stored the bones in a safe location and got on with her other research.” [Side note: it’s not clear to me that consultation/consensus was re-sought for the present study. A subsequent passage [below] suggests maybe not… which seems problematic, even if it’s within the letter of the law re: remains found on private property.]
“Doyle and Willerslev then set off on a 1,500-kilometre road trip to meet representatives of four Montana tribes; Doyle later consulted another five. Many of the people they talked to had few problems with the research, Doyle says, but some would have preferred to have been consulted before the study started, and not years after.”
“Willerslev says that researchers studying early American remains should assume that they are related to contemporary groups, and involve them as early as possible. But it is not always clear whom to contact, he adds, particularly when remains are related to groups spread across the Americas. ‘We have to engage with Native Americans, but how you deal with that question in practice is not an easy thing,’ he says.” [Side note 2: Really? I mean… it’s 2014… surely there is a name/email address/phone number to follow up with in these matters? I don’t mean to belittle the fact that consultation and collaboration can be a nebulous, circuitous undertaking, but still. Have other folks’ experiences highlighted any particular challenges or strategies in these matters?]
“Hank Greely, a legal scholar at Stanford University in California who is interested in the legal and ethical issues of human genetics, commends the approach of Willerslev’s team. But he says that there is no single solution to involving Native American communities in such research. ‘You’re looking to try to talk to the people who might be most invested in, or connected with, particular sets of remains,’ he advises.”
(All quoted material from “Ancient genome stirs ethics debate” by Ewan Calloway, Nature 506, 142–143 (13 February 2014) doi:10.1038/506142a. Photo from Lands of Montana.)
While searching for a photo to accompany this post, I cam across this interview with Shane Doyle (the Doyle referenced above), and think it adds additional dimensions to this discussion. Check it!