Most human remains are stored in archives, museums, or publicly or privately organized anthropological collections. Additionally, samples for archaeogenetic analyses are sometimes directly procured from archaeological field sites and laboratories. Especially in the case of long-term collections, the management and the appropriate means of acquisition, collection, care, and display of human remains have changed over time. Still, consensus standards for managing remains may not exist globally, but individual institutions and research groups have developed their own standards and procedures that undergo occasional revisions with changing trends and norms.
In order to assess ethical implications of research on human remains and other artefacts from museums and collections, it is important to understand the history of such collections. In fact, the practice of collecting materials and artifacts in the last five centuries has been driven by multiple factors. Apart from curiosity and scientific interest, these also arguably include greed, expression of colonial power (Pearson, Schadla-Hall, and Moshenska 2011) and to advance ideas of white superiority. Particularly collections compiled during the colonial period or from occupied territories pose ethical questions, especially within light of indigenous rights and post-colonial nations’ movements for repatriation and ownership of their past (e.g. Sarr and Savoy 2018). However, the ways in which human remains were acquired during the colonial periods vary in their context and historical settings, and thus require intensive consideration.
Here we put forward a set of questions to assist researchers in the field of Archaeogenetics to understand the ethical status of human remains prior to collaboration.
- What were the motivations, scholarly or otherwise, of the collectors/excavators of the human remains?
- If for scholarly purposes, how was that work during the time of material collection carried out? Was it under the auspices of the local administration authorities and indigenous communities if applicable?
- Do the holders or excavators of the material perpetuate a particular political agenda, which could be involuntarily advanced by our research?
- Does the human material in a collection hold special religious or social significance for a community?
- Are the human remains at question subject to repatriation calls?
- Were there credible attempts to identify stakeholders, especially for otherwise considered “unaffiliated” remains?
- Are relevant communities in the country of origin or elsewhere, aware of the items in possession of the museum/collection or the excavation?
And especially in the case of long-term collections:
- What is the chain of custody of the human remains in question before they arrived at a museum or collection?
- How did the museum/collection acquire the human remains?
- What federal, state, or local permits are required for study and/or invasive analysis of the remains?
In light of the answers to these questions and different ethical priorities of individuals, research teams and institutions may result in contrasting personal judgments whether or not to proceed with analyses. This is, for example, the case with skull collections of the 19th and early 20th century which usually comprise specimens from a variety of backgrounds and have been under scrutiny in recent years. Some authors of this document feel that it is reasonable to work on certain elements of this collection, excluding those whose collection violated basic human rights by today’s standards or insufficiently clear provenience. Similarly, some argue that archaeological/archaeogenetic analyses, such as radiocarbon dating and genetic information, can contribute to illuminating age or origin ascribed to a sample and aid repatriation. Others believe that the use of any elements of such collections should be avoided or used solely for repatriation purposes, since one cannot use the remains without naming the collection. They argue that this would continue to credit a person or institution that have themselves committed, or encouraged others to commit, crimes against humanity to acquire some of the elements in the collection.