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The Ethics of Sampling Human Skeletal Remains for Destructive Analyses

Abstract

The rise of more sophisticated forms of analysis has allowed bioarchaeologists to address and answer a wide range of questions regarding past diets, health, mobility, population history, kinship, and taphonomy. However, all of these techniques, e.g. DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating, isotope analysis, and histological analysis require destructive sampling of human remains, which raises ethical issues pertaining to preservation and survival as well as cultural concerns of both past and contemporary societies regarding the post mortem treatment of the dead. This chapter will explore the validity of conducting destructive sampling for the purpose of academic research. It will explore how curators, bioarchaeologists, and archaeologists currently deal with ethical issues surrounding destructive sampling and associated analyses, including the curation of skeletal remains for research purposes, access enquiries, and matters of consent. It is recommended that bioarchaeologists, archaeologists, and curators ensure ethics are at the core of all work carried out when working with human remains. It is thus proposed that these methods should be reserved for focused research questions as opposed to exploratory studies. It is also recommended that researchers and curators receive adequate training in procedures related to destructive sampling as a means of controlling the number of times samples can be taken from bones and teeth which will, in turn, preserve skeletal remains for future generations to study using even more advanced techniques. Following an introduction to the subject matter, this chapter will explore ethics and human remains, technical analyses applied to archaeological human remains, religious and cultural beliefs, and finally makes recommendations for best practice when conducting destructive sampling.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Siân Halcrow (University of Otago) for her insight into the use of destructive sampling of human remains belonging to Indigenous groups. Thanks are also due to Emily Carroll (Bournemouth University) for sharing chapters of her unpublished Ph.D. thesis.

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Squires, K., Booth, T., Roberts, C.A. (2019). The Ethics of Sampling Human Skeletal Remains for Destructive Analyses. In: Squires, K., Errickson, D., Márquez-Grant, N. (eds) Ethical Approaches to Human Remains. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-32926-6_12

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