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Archaeogenetics is the analysis of genetic material preserved in archaeological remains using molecular approaches, such as genome-wide DNA sequencing. It addresses questions about the genetic relationships, geographical origins, natural selective processes or the genetic structure of past and present-day human, plant, animal or even microbial populations. Terms used widely synonymous with archaeogenetics are paleogenomics and ancient genomics.

Archaeogenetics is a research field at the interface of the natural sciences (mainly genetics) and humanities (mainly archaeology). As such, it not only inherits the ethical aspects connected to each field, but through their combination also generates new questions, such as: How do we balance the need to preserve archaeological material as cultural heritage and the need to destructively sample such material in order to study it? How do we navigate between different stakeholders and interests when our interpretations of the data infringe on group identities and conflict with oral histories? How do we interpret and communicate models of “genetic ancestry” without contributing to unscientific myths of national origins or race theories?

We present such and similar questions in archaeogenetic research on this page, as discussed within the Ethics Interest group of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, formerly at the MPI for the Science of Human History (now MPI for Geoanthropology). This group was formed by junior and senior scientists in the department in response to internal and external demands to engage with the ethical matters of our research, and to continuously educate ourselves on these topics. While projects and opinions within our group are diverse, we all felt the need to increase our understanding of ethical questions and discuss how to conduct our research responsibly. This discussion started out in December 2018 and received input and comments from all members of the Department of Archaeogenetics.

As scientists from a mostly homogenous background, we are not neutral with respect to ethical questions around our research. We have a clear interest to advance knowledge and study human remains where possible. We thereby may also contribute to some issues that we identify and discuss in this document. With that in mind we believe that our point of view from inside the field of research can add to other perspectives from external institutions such as government bodies, ethical review boards, grant agencies, communities of origin or science journalists. We hope that our unique perspective can contribute to ongoing discussions inside and outside the field.

This is a living text meant as an invitation to discussion. As a consequence, it will be further updated through future releases. Changes will be indicated in a Changelog. We have structured this document along key topics that we have identified, which can be read and discussed independently, or as a whole. Each section contains a general introduction and discussion of the key problems, as we have experienced them, and also tries to give recommendations on appropriate approaches to dealing with them and aspirations we have for the field (“Best practices”).

This document thus serves three purposes:

  • Serve as a living discussion record within our department and as a basis for discussion also beyond our department.
  • Serve as an educational resource for new students or junior researchers entering the field, here or elsewhere.
  • Communicate to our scientific partners, and to the general public, some of the issues we face and the actions we recommend.