Molecular Anthropology: The Red Headed Step Child Of Biology
    By Hayley Mann | April 13th 2009 08:08 PM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hayley

    In 2006, I graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Genetics and Anthropology. I've had the privilege of working for various laboratories conducting...

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    Molecular anthropology—you probably haven’t heard of this discipline by name but I guarantee that you already find this particular field fascinating.  Therefore, I’d like to formally introduce to you the field of molecular anthropology which includes such areas of research as; genetically reconstructing man’s ancient migration from Africa to the Americas, resurrecting Neanderthal genomes and identifying ancestral origins through DNA ancestry.

    For those of you who find my guarantee to be not applicable, then chances are you reject most, if not all of this field’s research-derived conclusions including; modern man evolved in Africa, Neanderthals and humans split evolutionary lineages approximately 500,000 to 800,000 years ago and certain genetic regions can reveal an individual’s ancestral geographical origin.

    My point is this: virtually every area of research in molecular anthropology is controversial and no matter what avenue molecular anthropologists explore, they always manage to step on someone’s toes.  As a result, this field endures a heavy beating of wrongful scrutiny and is often not taken seriously amongst the general populous.

    This public rejection is primarily due to the fact that humans have an extremely strong sense of self identity and belief, and the information that molecular anthropology yields often challenges individualistic identities and spiritually dictated beliefs.  Needless to say, a good majority of anthropological facts and theories are viewed as radical ideas and are typically met with strong opposition and protest.

    Although anthropological truths are the minority in terms of acceptance, surprisingly, molecular anthropologists are still able to obtain samples for analysis—even from human populations whose traditional beliefs completely contradict their findings.

    The most notoriously controversial anthropological avenue is Native American research.  The impression that is often conveyed to the public is that Native Americans are exploited by researchers.  This popular viewpoint stems from “bone disputes” that the media reports on, as well as, “horror” stories and ethical issues that are popularized by outspoken activists.  However, what needs to be emphasized instead is that in present times, such disputes are rare because anthropologists have successfully developed numerous mutually beneficial relationships with tribes.  Biological specimens for research are therefore not obtained by force or stealing but rather, cooperation and legal rights.

    Dr. Malhi, Molecular Anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discusses the present ideology behind anthropological research, “To work with ancient people you have to work with living people—you have to establish a relationship with living people in the community in order to learn and work with ancient individuals in the community.”

    In 1996, 9,000 year old remains were discovered in Kennewick Washington.  The resulting dispute between Native Americans, the US government and anthropologists lasted for over a decade and cost millions of dollars in legal fees.  Although various media outlets reported on the controversial Kennewick Man quarrel, what the media didn’t report on was the discovery of 9,500+ year old Alaskan remains found later that week and Dr. Kemp’s research findings thereafter.

    “I conducted a genetic study of the Alaskan On Your Knees Cave remains that were discovered within a week of the time Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996.  My study resulted in the opportunity to sample over 230 indigenous southwest Alaska individuals.  The Kennewick case… zero.  It has resulted in only embittered relationships,” explains Assistant Professor Brian Kemp of Washington State University.

    Good relationships are vital for the advancement of knowledge in this field and since access to sampling specific human populations is dependent on good relations, anthropologists take maintaining them very seriously.  Clearly it is not in a researcher’s best interest to negatively exploit Natives and therefore risk ruining future opportunities to obtain samples necessary for career-dependent research.

    Establishing trust within Native American communities is often very difficult as Dr. Smith, Molecular Anthropologist at the University of California, Davis explains, “There is a wide spread suspicion of scientific research.  Today with the phenomena of DNA ownership and pharmaceutical companies patenting DNA sequences, there are suspicions of what we’re going to do and how we’re going to make money off their DNA.  They don’t understand why we would want to know something just for the sake of knowledge.”

    As grossly observed, the human desire for knowledge is extremely powerful and people dedicate their lives to this never ending pursuit.  Although one may not understand why certain individuals want to know perhaps seemingly boring and insignificant tidbits of information (Dr. Smith cites “chemists” for example), it is absolutely a sincere motivator for them.  Overall, the thirst for knowledge, along with the reputation of the individual researchers themselves should be taken into consideration when judging their intentions for conducting research, as opposed to formulating opinions based off of rare disputes and conspiracy theories.

    Now that the molecular anthropologist’s diabolical scheme to satisfy themselves intellectually has been exposed, what exactly do Native Americans have to gain from relationships with anthropologists? And do they even want to participate?

    In 2006, Kari Schroeder, Molecular Anthropologist at the University of California, Davis conducted a survey in hopes of identifying ways to productively collaborate with Native American communities.  Dr. Schroeder’s study was published in the Journal of Evolutionary Anthropology and her results suggest that, “The survey participants are not as polarized regarding the spiritual implications of participating in genetics research as one might anticipate from arguments made by Native American activists.”

    Dr. Schroeder’s results show that the majority of the Native Americans that were surveyed would also be willing to participate in genetic sampling.  This implies that just like the majority of modern Americans, Native Americans are also able to harmonize their religious beliefs with scientific knowledge.  However, the difference is that Native American trust has been demolished as a result of the US government.  In the wake of grotesque and wrongful actions of the government, anthropologists and other researchers have the huge responsibility of restoring Native American trust of outsiders.

    Gaining this trust is clearly not an easy feat, however, the desire to learn more about their ancestors is a motivator in establishing working relationships with researchers.

    “A lot of these communities have active programs for the sake of reconstructing their ancestor’s past such as language classes and even archaeological digs on their reservations.  Genetic analysis fits in with these other analyses to help reconstruct the past,” Dr. Malhi explains.

    It’s also worth mentioning that presently, Dr. Kemp is conducting research on San Francisco Muwekma tribal remains and not only does his research have the tribe’s full support, it's also being funded by the tribe itself.  Another remarkable example of harmonizing spiritual belief and science is that in one instance, Dr. Malhi was able to examine a set of ancient remains because living descendants believed that they were unearthed for a reason—to learn more about their ancestors.

    As best explained by Dr. Schroeder’s article, “Genomic research has the potential to intensify issues of racism and identity because of the frequent mismatch between biological ancestry and a culturally define community"—which is precisely why molecular anthropology is a hot bed of controversy.

    This generated controversy is not however, putting a stop to this field’s advancement which alludes to the fact that molecular anthropology is here to stay because it’s a valid scientific discipline.  Also, despite popular belief, anthropological research is welcomed by numerous Native American communities because it provides them with invaluable information about their ancestors that was either previously unknown or lost due to malicious actions against them.

    Currently, there is a dispute at the University of California, San Diego that pertains to the repatriation of 10,000 year old remains.  This is unfortunate because once again, antagonistic relationships between anthropologists and Natives are being publicized which most certainly has public viewpoint implications.  However, as you will see in another article to follow, this present dispute is not about evil researchers "stealing" from Natives but rather, the wrongdoings of individuals in public institutions that do not have either side's best interest in mind.


    Schroeder, K. (2006).  Opinion: Demystifying Native American Genetic Opposition to Research. Evolutionary Anthropology 15:88-92.


    You make some great points here - anthropology has some unique challenges not faced by model organisms geneticists or even medical geneticists:
    Good relationships are vital for the advancement of knowledge in this field and since access to sampling specific human populations is dependent on good relations, anthropologists take maintaining them very seriously.  Clearly it is not in a researcher’s best interest to negatively exploit Natives and therefore risk ruining future opportunities to obtain samples necessary for career-dependent research.
    Clinical researchers do have to worry about individual physician-patient relationships, but generally not about relationships with an entire community.
    Anthropology seems controversial for several reasons. Like you mentioned, whenever science hits close to home and impinges on beliefs about who we are, people are bound to get riled up.

    But I think there is another tension in the field: those who approach it from a 'humanities' perspective, researchers who are more like historians, who like to build narratives based on their experiences, who aren't as worried about data and statistics and genotyping; and those who are bring the standards of the so-called harder natural sciences to bear - DNA analysis, stats, etc.

    One more source of tension is the, until recently, relative sparseness of data (in comparison with other sciences). Anthropologists have heroically pursued their research to very inhospitable corners of the world, but still, they sometimes have to try to draw major conclusions from studies of just a few available, limited samples.

    Now genetics is flooding the field - thousands of samples, dozens of populations and sub-populations, millions of SNPs, and even ancient DNA: a surefire recipe for controversy. In addition, many of the people doing the anthropological genetics are not really anthropologists; their are geneticists looking for more nails to whack away at with their high-throughput genotyping hammer.

    The end result is that things are really exciting right now, with a lot of open questions and great new tools in the field.

    Alternate Allele

    Anthropologists have heroically pursued their research to very inhospitable corners of the world, but still, they sometimes have to try to draw major conclusions from studies of just a few available, limited samples.
    Very much the case in this field.  My next article will emphasize this point; importantce of ancient human remains and why they're worth the overwhelming hassle of a legal battle.  The human research element adds a whole dimension/challenge to this field and if relations are broken, then we don't ever get to know.

    As with advancements of the field, molecular anthropologists retrieve samples and then often work with other geneticists that are better funded and therefore have access to more advanced pieces of genotyping equipment (perhaps a bit of a over-generalization, but true none the less).  Their experience and pre-existing relations are vital to other interested parties' research as well. 
    Hayley: could you write something about the ethics of this area?

    In the UK, the unethical excavation of human remains is often associated with Burke and Hare.  In fact, they were far too lazy to dig up graves.  But it was often the case that graves were robbed for medical research purposes, and so laws were changed as a direct reaction. 

    There is now in the UK a strict code of ethics for archaeologists, backed up by strong laws.  In brief, if human remains are to be disturbed they must be treated with all due respect and, in most cases, re-interred, with again all due respect.

    Is that the case in the USA ?
    Whatever the laws are, there should be a distinction between more recent remains and remains that are 10,000 years old (and thus can't possibly be associated with any specific sub-population around today). In most cases, this oldest stuff is found because it's exposed through natural forces like erosion (or unnatural ones produced by developers), and not a researcher specifically going to a burial site and digging up graves. 10,000 year old bones found in caves and creek beds should be fair game.
    Alternate Allele

    Yes.  Such laws should have a distinction between culturally identifiable and culturally unidentifiable remains (ie 10,000 year old remains).  NAGPRA certainly does, but people misinterpret this.

    As for ethics, in terms of handling the remains, it's rather sad that we actually have to laws where common sense and morality should already be instilled in us.  I would guess that such laws were created to help promote the fact that we as a people are culturally sensitive to our past mistakes.

    As for laws here in the US, I'm not so sure about strict laws like in the UK, but there are state-level laws in place that archaeologists must follow upon discovering remains which is usually a mandatory consultation with a tribal representative.  But laws aside, no reptuable archaeologist would work on a site and purposely disrespect remains as well as not communicate with living members.

    From personal experience, when I handled remains I was asked that I respect them; in other words, ethics were taught to us.  Part of my archaoelogical training was learning about ethics, listening to tribal members and we took that very seriously since we felt it to be an honor to have such an opportunity.

    Larry Arnold
    I am very sceptical of anthropologists never mind the sundry contributions they have made to knowledge because however you want to look at it, they are and have been looking with a particular set of blinkered epistemologies, a particular hegemonic gaze that knows it can do what it will because it has the power to do so.

    It is de riguer to deride Derrida but he did make an important point in his critique of Levi Strauss and indeed to read a first American perspective on that particular debate is even more enlightening.

    You can never divorce science from a social context, and more than anything else mainstream anthropology would teach you that.

    It is hard to realise the injustices that are done to an autochthonous community unless you find yourself the locus of such intense study, and although my mainstream cultural identity might be even more WASP than the East coast wannabees, I have an autochthoneity rooted in something deeper than a mere counter culture, as it resides in an alternative cognitive style, my new blog dealing with the counterpoint of that particular perspective as it comes into contact with the research.

    It is a lot more than conjuring with bones, and unless you really look at it from a humanistic perspective of respect  for ideologies you regard as primitive and insignificant, you are missing something very very vital at the root of the human condition. (And I dare say there is an evolutionary neurological explanation behind that never mind genetics)
    Alternate Allele
    Sorry to hear that you are skeptical of anthropologists as a whole entity.  Although you only have my word, I have spent time working with anthropologists and not once have I witnessed a foul action against Natives by them.  If anything, I witnessed friendships and mututally supportive relationships between the two parties; even though their interests were not the same.  I even did archaeology for three years and we worked closely with the Natives every step of the way and the information gathered from such sites was all in an effort to stop development on known sites.

    "...are and have been looking with a particular set of blinkered epistemologies, a particular hegemonic gaze that knows it can do what it will because it has the power to do so."
    This is a great example of the widespread skepticism of scientific research.  Clearly anthropologists and researchers don't have "power" over other humans.  Invasive research is consentual and to break that would be damaging to the field.

    "It is hard to realise the injustices that are done to an autochthonous community unless you find yourself the locus of such intense study..."
    Well, I think it's implied that you cannot truly "know what it's like" unless it's who you are/your culture.  However, it's not hard to realize injustices inflicted upon others and certainly anthropologists would know about such incidences considering they study and work with those communities.

    I cannot say for sure that no such injustices occur in present times, but that is why I urge people to not stereotype the field but rather judge situations based on the individual reputations of the anthropologists/researchers.  People also need to realize that a lot of Natives want to learn about their ancestors and are interested in the same type of information as anthropologists are, so once again, you cannot make stereotypical generalizations.
    Nicholas Horton
    Molecular Anthro, like other physical anthro disciplines, does incur it's fair share of wrath.  But, look at the bright side, in today's climate, you're still better off than an economist! 

    While I'm studying mathematics myself, I always harbored a secret desire to be an evolutionary anthropologist of some stripe.  Just finished reading "Reflections of Our Past" by John Relethford.  Very cool indeed.
    Great article. I took a Molecular Anthropology class while enrolled in, of all things, law school at a top univeristy for anthropology studies. It was hands down the most fascinating subject I've studied. I see "Reflections of Our Past;" I will be checking that book out ASAP. Any other good molecular anthro books out there? Thanks.