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Chapter 1: Stakeholders and access to human remains

Human remains provide a unique opportunity to study human history and prehistory, which in some cases cannot be reconstructed otherwise. Such studies frequently present new perspectives on earlier narratives, as well as uncovering entirely new information. At the same time, human remains have spiritual, religious, cultural, and personal value to some communities who consider themselves descendants or otherwise related to the people whom the human remains represent. These are termed “communities of interest” in this document. This can result in various stakeholders having conflicting interests regarding the need, implementation, and interpretation of genetic studies. How to mediate between these interests is commonly a matter of law, but it also requires careful ethical and cultural considerations. We believe that the treatment of human remains from different cultures must be based on awareness and respect concerning the norms and ideas of their communities of interest.

In the section we want to elaborate on concepts to consider when working with material from (museum) collections and archaeological fieldwork (section 1.1) and about the interaction with the mentioned communities of interest (section 1.2).

1.1 Human remains and their provenience

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.

  1. What were the motivations, scholarly or otherwise, of the collectors/excavators of the human remains?
  2. 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?
  3. Do the holders or excavators of the material perpetuate a particular political agenda, which could be involuntarily advanced by our research?
  4. Does the human material in a collection hold special religious or social significance for a community?
  5. Are the human remains at question subject to repatriation calls?
  6. Were there credible attempts to identify stakeholders, especially for otherwise considered “unaffiliated” remains?
  7. 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:
  8. What is the chain of custody of the human remains in question before they arrived at a museum or collection?
  9. How did the museum/collection acquire the human remains?
  10. 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.

1.2 Consultation of involved communities

Scientists studying human biological material have to be sensitive to the rights and interests of communities who associate their cultural identity with such remains. The existence and specifications of laws governing the study of (indigenous) human remains are variable across countries, and often associated with the country’s (colonial) history. One example is the Native American Grave Protection Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in the United States that protects Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony found on federally owned land, and requires change of ownership to the descendants and culturally affiliated groups (although this law does not apply to objects found on private property). Similarly, the Australian Commonwealth law protects indigenous heritage sites and objects, including human remains. However, this legislation often does not explicitly cover research and the implications of the latest research methods.

When specific legislation guiding interactions with involved communities is not available which is often the case, other national and international guidelines can be consulted for guidance, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people. Under Article 11.1 it ensures the right of indigenous people to “protect the past [...] such as archaeological sites [... and ] artifacts”, and Article 12.1 guarantees the “right to the repatriation of their human remains”. Further, it grants indigenous peoples control over “all manifestations of their science, including [...] genetic resources“ (Article 31.1), and demands that “States shall take effective measures to recognize and protect the exercise of those rights” (Article 31.2) and “consult and cooperate [...] to obtain [indigenous peoples’] free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their [...] resources.” (Article 32.2). This also applies when national laws are in violation of human rights or international guidelines and more holistic guidelines should be respected voluntarily and additional consent sought from indigenous representatives. The language in the United Nations Declaration suggests that, while scientists seeking collaboration on analyses of indigenous remains should generally also work with state agencies (who “shall take effective measures to recognize and protect the exercise of those rights”), we do have responsibility ourselves to ensure that sampling and analysis is in line with indigenous rights. This will sometimes require direct engagement with indigenous communities even if this would not be required by the processes designed by national legislation (Fox and Hawks 2019). Such engagement holds for any community who derives part of its cultural identity from association with the remains under question, regardless whether those links are supported by archaeobiological measures or not (e.g. genetic continuity).

When appropriate, group or collective consent, i.e. the community of interest is informed about the research and consents to it (Hudson 2009), should be acquired prior to working with human remains that are claimed by or belong to the indigenous community. In general, researchers, as part of collaborative teams, should consult with communities at multiple points throughout the study, from study inception through communication of results (see section 4) (Wagner 2020). Here we outline steps that should be taken at the beginning of a study to obtain informed consent for sample collection.

  • Explain the research questions and consult with the community of interest how they interface with local traditions and histories, as well as questions the community might have.
  • Explain the study design and sampling methods. Determine with input of the community/representatives if the analysis of human remains associated with their community justifies the disturbance of the remains and invasive sampling.
  • Outline potential results of the study and discuss how these may interface with non-scientific narratives. Try to anticipate possible political consequences of the study and the impact that might have on the community, and together determine further action or seek consultation with experts if appropriate.
  • Agree on if and how material will be returned to the community.


Pearson, Mike Parker, Tim Schadla-Hall, and Gabe Moshenska. 2011. “Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology.” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. https://doi.org/10.5334/pia.369.

Fox, Keolu, and John Hawks. 2019. “Use Ancient Remains More Wisely.” Nature 572 (7771): 581–83.

Hudson, Maui. 2009. “Think Globally, Act Locally: Collective Consent and the Ethics of Knowledge Production.” International Social Science Journal 60 (195): 125–33.

Sarr, Felwine, Savoy, Benedicte. 2018: The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward new Relational Ethics. Ministère de la culture

Wagner, Jennifer K. et al, 2020: Fostering responsible research on Ancient DNA. The American Journal of Human Genetics 107(2), 183 - 195