Exploring the Potential of Ancient DNA as a Forensic Tool to Facilitate the Repatriation of Indigenous Skeletal Remains

May 2022

David Reich, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Jakob Sedig, Harvard Medical School

During a two-day workshop, participants will thoroughly discuss the potential of using ancient DNA (aDNA) as a forensic tool to assist with the repatriation of skeletal remains in museum collections to present-day tribal groups. The basis of this topic stems from the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed by the US Congress in 1990, which stipulates that culturally identifiable remains must be returned to tribes that can demonstrate "cultural affiliation" to skeletal remains in museum collections that are supported with federal funding. While thousands of ancient individuals have been repatriated to date, over 100,000 "culturally unidentifiable" individuals remain in various repositories and the most recent implementation of NAGPRA mandates that museums seek to repatriate these as well. When NAGPRA was passed, it was not possible to use ancient DNA to help in cultural affiliation assessments. This Harvard Radcliffe Institute exploratory seminar will assess the feasibility of using ancient DNA in repatriation efforts in North America specifically, but also for other world regions. Drawing upon the expertise of a diverse group of participants, the organizers aim to garner a better understanding of the repatriation process and critically evaluate if aDNA can be a useful tool in the repatriation of Indigenous skeletal material. Discussions will include the potential concerns and challenges of this research, in particular focusing on the thoughts and opinions of the non-scientist participants who are less driven by science-specific goals, to ensure that we listen to a wide range of perspectives to answer questions in a maximally informed way.