Title

Game of Bones: Power, Ethics, and Emerging Technology in Paleogenomics Research

Publication Date:
Updated:

Collection Editor(s):

Collection Editor(s)
Name & Degree
Keolu Fox, PhD
Work Title/Institution
Assistant Professor, University of California, San Diego, Co-founder, Indigenous Futures Institute (IFI), Co-founder Native BioData Consortium (NBDC)

Introduction

The field of paleogenomics is exploding. More ancient genomes were sequenced in 2019 than in all of history. According to The Economist, in 2018, oil was the most traded global commodity. However, in 2021, the demand for oil was surpassed by the demand for data itself, including digital sequence information (DSI) on genetic resources. Despite this enthusiasm for paleogenomic insights to inform our understanding of human history and demand for DSI, the amount of human remains on planet earth is finite and sequencing can result in their permanent destruction. Thus, the sharp increase in the number of ancient DNA laboratories that are processing and sequencing ancient remains, paired with the scarcity of objects of analysis, has created a “bone rush” culture among paleogenetic scientists that is sustained by a frantic desire to publish in marquee journals.

The increased pace of paleogenomic analysis has meant an exponential increase in the destruction of the ancient human remains of Indigenous People. From the point of view of many Indigenous groups, whose ancestors are being mined for DSI, several questions arise: What power dynamics are at play? Who does…

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The field of paleogenomics is exploding. More ancient genomes were sequenced in 2019 than in all of history. According to The Economist, in 2018, oil was the most traded global commodity. However, in 2021, the demand for oil was surpassed by the demand for data itself, including digital sequence information (DSI) on genetic resources. Despite this enthusiasm for paleogenomic insights to inform our understanding of human history and demand for DSI, the amount of human remains on planet earth is finite and sequencing can result in their permanent destruction. Thus, the sharp increase in the number of ancient DNA laboratories that are processing and sequencing ancient remains, paired with the scarcity of objects of analysis, has created a “bone rush” culture among paleogenetic scientists that is sustained by a frantic desire to publish in marquee journals.

The increased pace of paleogenomic analysis has meant an exponential increase in the destruction of the ancient human remains of Indigenous People. From the point of view of many Indigenous groups, whose ancestors are being mined for DSI, several questions arise: What power dynamics are at play? Who does this research benefit? How did our ancestors end up in ice-layered freezers and dust-filled, steel drawers in the first place? Further, as investigators begin to aggregate and harmonize large-scale ancient genomics datasets to compare them to both archaic and modern human populations, questions have arisen about data access, privacy, and control.

My hope is to inspire you, the reader, to think like an Indigenous futurist: What will it look like when Indigenous People use ancient genome sequencing tools? What data would we choose to generate? What would it look like when the power imbalance is flipped? When Indigenous community members are on the throne: What scientific questions would we prioritize?

Imagine using deterrent technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) driven digital surveillance approaches to uncover illegal networks of exchange, including the trade of human remains that contain DNA for cash on Instagram, Etsy, and eBay. Imagine utilizing digital human remains auditing lists, supported by ledger systems like blockchain, to create transparency and accountability among scientists who are engaged in processing the ancient remains contained in museum collections. Finally, imagine using ancient soil and sediment DNA sequencing technology to connect generations of contemporary Indigenous community members to their ancestors, lands, and resources that were forcibly taken away by imperialists. In this future, paleogenomic research would be used to reinvigorate Indigenous guardianship of our homelands, our cultures, and our future.

The publications and multimedia resources selected below focus on the “Game of Bones” that is taking place in the field of paleogenomics, with particular focus on: 1) the power dynamics between stakeholders; 2) novel ethical frameworks and guidelines that enable connectivity and community consensus building; and 3) deterrent technologies that could be used to safeguard Indigenous remains (and genomes) against predatory investigators and research programs.

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Power
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Ethics
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Emerging technology
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Tags
paleogenomics
ancient DNA
emerging technology
Indigenous Peoples
archaeology
responsible research conduct

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About ELSIhub Collections

ELSIhub Collections are essential reading lists on fundamental or emerging topics in ELSI, curated and explained by expert Collection Editors paired with ELSI trainees. This series assembles materials from cross-disciplinary literatures to enable quick access to key information and offers a mentored editorial experience for ELSI early career researchers and trainees.