The Homecoming Conference: The Promise and Peril of Paleobiology

New Buffalo, Michigan – Paleobiology, the study of ancient ancestors’ DNA to understand the past, is a practice with a fraught colonial history.

That’s because analysis of Aboriginal DNA by non-indigenous people was often performed without the consent of living tribal relatives, and served to perpetuate harmful stereotypes against indigenous peoples.

Jennifer Ruff, a professor of Aboriginal studies who specializes in genetic research at the University of Kansas, believes that paleobiology is both promising and fraught.

said Ruff, who spoke Wednesday as a keynote speaker at the American Indian Association Homecoming Affairs Conference. “Like any other tool, paleobiology can be used for good purposes and can be used for bad purposes. It can be positive and empowering, or it can have unintended harmful consequences, even when it is employed by well-meaning and well-meaning people.”

Below is a summary of Raff’s speech on the strengths, shortcomings, and process of analyzing ancient DNA from ancestors. Her comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What can genetics tell us about the past?

DNA can tell us about the biological relationships between individuals living in the present and the past. So the evolutionary forces acting on all life on Earth — natural selection, migration, genetic drift, and mutation — all change the genetic makeup of a population over time.

DNA can allow us to estimate past population sizes, with some caveats. It can give an insight into the sources of ancestry. Were your ancestors themselves descended from this population group? Or did they have some from a completely different demographic that we might not have realized? We can look at demographic events. We can calculate the approximate dates of these demographic events, again, with a few caveats.

We can also learn about things like tuberculosis and other infectious diseases and where they come from. We can learn about the relationships between humans and non-humans. For example, dogs and how they relate to indigenous peoples and the populations they traveled with.”

What can’t DNA tell us?

“There are some things that DNA can’t tell us. In general, it can’t tell us the location of events, unless there is a very close connection to archaeological records. It can be very deceptive. It can’t tell us the difference between two groups if they are the same. It doesn’t tell us anything about behavior and identity. It doesn’t tell us about tribal affiliation – that’s big.”

How is the process of extracting and reading DNA?

“We take a sample from the ancestor first, and it can either be a small piece of bone, tooth or hair. We can also get DNA from soil and some and sometimes artefacts. The amount needed is 50 milligrams, which is roughly equivalent to a pinch of powder per extraction.”

“This amount of obfuscation of ancestral remains is completely unacceptable to some descendants, and that alone takes it off the table. There are some ways to try to get ancient DNA without taking this powder sample, but they are rather unreliable.”

So the sample from the ancestor is processed to remove any contaminating DNA from people who might have touched it, for example, museums. It is then chemically treated, releasing the DNA from the sample. You’re basically getting out of it with a little tube filled with fluid that has DNA inside. We take this resulting liquid containing the DNA of the progenitor and pass it through a column containing silica. DNA binds to silica under certain conditions, and this allows us to wash it with multiple buffers to clean up soil, chemicals, and any other chemicals that might interfere with the sequencing process.

“Depending on how much DNA we have, we can either sequence it directly and sequence the entire genome. The DNA sequences we get give us a literal readout of all the elements A, G, T and C in that genome, but they’re in different random parts of the basil, and so they have to be sorted.” Once the genome is assembled [into order]Then you can start analyzing it.”

How can DNA be used as a tool for repatriation, and what are the problems with that?

“DNA can be used to bolster repatriation claims, but it is not a simple matter. If the use of DNA in repatriation claims becomes more common, it will likely open the door to defining indigeneity in genetic terms, which is problematic.”

“It may also characterize DNA as a tool for assessing relationships on cultural and traditional knowledge, and that is also a problem. And I say this as a geneticist. So the other thing that worries me is, if the use of DNA for repatriation claims becomes commonplace, will this use Large-scale anticipation of DNA study and repatriation claims? I don’t know they will. But if so, what about those tribes for whom DNA research is not raised due to their sanctity? Does that mean they have less chance? And again, too , DNA study results may not match TK and TK. They cannot be used reliably to determine tribal affiliation necessarily.

“I am concerned about the use of biological criteria, but I also feel comfortable with any tool that could promote repatriation.”

What is the ethical debate about paleobiology?

“Experience in ancient DNA does not make you a bioethicist. And I would include myself in that category. Denneh geneticist and bioethicist, Crystal Tsuzzi, noted that being a palaeontologist creates a conflict of interest when it comes to ethics, because [paleo geneticists] Benefit from research products, and absolutely right.”

What are some “best practice” considerations and questions to consider if you are among the states pursuing DNA analysis?

“The first consideration is consultation. How would the tribe like to be consulted? This varies with each project I am involved in.

“Research design is another big question and I think it is very helpful for tribes to at least know in advance what their priorities are. Because when I go to a tribe, I will come to them with specific questions they might be interested in, but I want to know what they are interested in. What do you want to Know about the past? What do you want to know about these ancestors? We include the two sets of questions in the research design, unless the tribe doesn’t like my questions. If they don’t want to address the same kinds of questions I do, we take them off the table.

“This is a big one. So the DNA extraction and retrieval process is destructive, but there are products left over from that process. So you’ll have a little bit of a DNA sample left. And what should we do with that? There are options: they can be discarded or destroyed; ( OR) It can be returned to the community to be buried with the ancestor.

“What do you want to do with that? And what do you want to do with the DNA itself?”

“Another thing I would keep in mind as decision makers or consultants is that the DNA sequencing process produces massive amounts of data. Standard practice and academia, which your research partners may push, is to publish open access to raw data, free for anyone to use Anyone can do any kind of future research with them.

“There are a few options: You can use the open access model, you can say inaccessibility. Then there is a compromise where the tribe oversees the kinds of research that is done with their DNA.”

If you are a tribe considering using paleobiology, how do you choose a trustworthy research partner?

“This is difficult, I think it will take a lot of work. So first, I will decide what to look for. What are your priorities? Do you want to do the research quickly, [or] Want your search to be more personalized? Do you want those long term relationships? In that case, a smaller lab might be more useful for you. They are not mutually exclusive, of course.

“I would look at the lab’s webpage and see the types of tones they make. What types of language do they use? Are they talking about “samples” or are they talking about “ancestors”? Do they describe their work as participatory or community-based? These are things to research about her.

Then of course ask other tribes and ask archaeologists and ask resettlement professionals about reputation. The ancient DNA community is not very large, and so we all have a good reputation.”

Concluding her remarks, Raff said she has seen the field change dramatically — and for the better — in just the past few years.

“We have a really long way to go. We are not where we want to be. There are setbacks, there are bad sides, but we are actually going in the right direction,” she said. “I am very optimistic about this. So empowering the tribes as decision makers in this process is the way forward.”

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About the author

Jenna Koons
author: Jenna KoonsE-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots and spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Jenna Koons is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter for the newsletter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and homecoming. Her lines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, and Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Koons is based in New York.


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