Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is hair archaeological or biological? Ethical issues with new Australian Aboriginal DNA study

by Salman Hameed

There is a fascinating new study out that shows that there were two waves of original human immigration to Asia. The Aboriginal Australians are descendants of the first wave, about 62,000-75,000 years ago, whereas, most modern Asians are linked to the second wave about 25,000-38,000 years ago. Fascinatingly, this was found by sequencing the DNA from a 100-year old lock of hair donated by an Aboriginal Australian. While there was a considerable effort was made by researchers to seek permission of Godfields Land and Sea Council, a body based in Southern Australia that represents Aboriginals living in the area where the original lock of hair was collected.

Nevertheless, this raises a number of issues (from Nature):
The study also raises broader consent issues over body parts of indigenous people held in museums, says Kowal. Many collections are returning bones to these groups, but the British Museum in London, for instance, generally excludes hair and nails from its repatriation policy. Such specimens are a valuable tool for studying the genomes of people from around the world, including populations that no longer exist, argues Willerslev.
So who has the authority to give permission for such genetic investigations? Furthermore, it changes the ethical dimensions may appear to change if the specimen is considered archaeological rather than biological. For example, a Danish bioethical review board didn't think it was necessary to review the hair-lock study as this was an archaeological specimen. To their credit, the researchers still went the extra mile to seek permissions from the relevant populations. But that will not always be the case, and it is essential to create some firm guidelines on this.

This issue is important and it comes up often with Native Americans in the US. Here are some earlier posts on the topic:
Disputes over Native American Remains
Blood Samples Back to Yanomamo
Havasupai Tribe and the Ethics of DNA Research
Skeletal Remains and the Issue of Cultural Affiliation

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