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Origins and Ethics

The sequencing of a boy belonging to the ancient American Clovis culture, published last week in Nature , showed that indigenous groups from North and South America are related to a single population that crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia. But as Nature News notes, the work also highlights ethical concerns surrounding studying Native Americans.

Geneticists have run into ethical issues studying Native Americans, particularly Native American origins and remains, before. As the New Scientist writes, geneticists from Arizona State University examining diabetes rates in the Havasupai people in the early 1990s also used the samples they collected to study the group's origins.

"Many tribes derive their identity not from their genes but from their land and origin myths. They fear that the idea they are descended from Siberians will be used to relegate them to just another immigrant group among many," New Scientist notes.

Arizona State apologized and paid $700,000 to the Havasupai, the New Scientist adds.

In addition, Nature News writes that, in the late 1990s, researchers also ran into issues while trying to study the Kennewick man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton found on federal land in Washington State. In the ensuing legal fight, Native American tribes in the region said they were culturally connected to the remains and asked for its reburial. The US agreed with the tribes, though the court said the remains were too old for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to apply and Kennewick man has been stored in a museum, but out of public view.

Though the remains examined in the recent Nature study were found on private land — and, as such, the NAGPRA doesn't apply — researchers reached out to area Native American groups to determine what to do with the remains after their work determined that the Clovis boy was most closely related to modern-day Native Americans, Nature News notes. The University of Copenhagen's Eske Willerslev, the senior author of the study, along with Sara Anzick, a National Institutes of Health researcher and the daughter of the owners of the land where the remains were found, and Shane Doyle, an instructor of Native American studies at Montana State University and member of the Crow tribe, met with a number of representatives of Montana tribes.

Doyle tells Nature News that most Native American groups they consulted did not have a problem with the work, though a few would have like to have know about it before it was started, rather than after it was finished.

Willerslev adds that researchers studying ancient American remains should get in contact with Native American groups early on, though he notes that it isn't always obvious who to contact as the ancient individual may be related to widespread modern-day groups. "We have to engage with Native Americans, but how you deal with that question in practice is not an easy thing," he tells Nature News.

The vast majority of the Montana groups, Nature News adds, want the Clovis boy to be reburied, and that is to take place in the spring after the ground thaws.