Jan 23, 2022

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Ancient human DNA is old, but the ethical dilemmas they raise are relatively new. The significant expansion over the last decade in research of ancient human DNA has created a need for dedicated ethical standard to guide researchers in their work.


For the first time, an international team of experts, among them a researcher from Tel Aviv University (TAU), recently formulated an ethical code for research of ancient human DNA that can be applied around the world. The authors explained that the significant increase throughout the last decade in research of ancient DNA extracted from human remains and its effects on archaeology and other fields created a need to formulate a dedicated ethical standard that will guide researchers in their work.


Sixty-four international researchers from different fields – archaeology, anthropology, curatorship, archaeogenetics and paleogenetics – from 31 different countries participated in the formulation of the ethical code. Among the team was TAU anthropologist and paleogeneticist Dr. Viviane Slon from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research. The ethical code was recently published in the prestigious journal Nature under the title 

“Ethics of DNA research on human remains: five globally applicable guidelines.” 


Slon, who is also a member of TAU’s Shmunis Family Anthropology Institute, explained that ancient DNA research has unique aspects that raise the need for ethical regulations. First, the examination of past ancestry can have social and political implications today; second, since ancient DNA research deals with people who once lived, it should respect them. 

Most of the sources regarding ancient DNA ethics were written until now based on studies affecting Native American communities –guidelines that are not necessarily applicable to research outside of the Americas. 


Several researchers have suggested that decisions about ancient DNA research be determined in the future by consulting representatives of indigenous communities and that community leaders should pre-approve any research before it begins.  


According to Slon, such approaches may create complex research dilemmas, as not all historical populations have current descendants, and even if they do, not every current community feels a strong link or connection with past populations.


The newly-written ethical codes aim to provide global relevance to a variety of contexts. They propose that investigators follow all regulations applicable at the research location. In addition, they encourage minimal damage to the human remains during research processes. In addition, the new standards call for cooperation with stakeholders, including any descendants or local communities as well as fellow researchers in other fields – and to respect their point of view.


“The guidelines proposed here encompass all the different stages of research, from planning, through sampling and sharing of data and results, to communicating with our fellow researchers and with the general public,” said Slon. 


“It is an international project born out of a virtual meeting that took place about a year ago in which there was a wide consensus regarding the need for ethical regulations in this growing field, and here we have the final product. We hope to increase its impact, and we are working to translate the paper into dozens of languages, including Hebrew. Recently, researchers from the Shmunis Family Anthropology Institute and the Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research led the breakthrough research discovering ancient human remains near the Nesher cementfactory in Ramla. Due to the foundational principals laid for the expansion of the interdisciplinary cooperation in the world of ancient DNA research, we will now be able to maximize the scientific accomplishments in this field, in Israel and throughout the world,” Slon concluded.