Wednesday, 29 April 2020

The ethics of archaeological coprolite analysis?

Some personal good news amongst the Covid19 chaos - I have a new paper currently in press in Earth Science Reviews (currently pre-proof so check in at a later date for definitive version with updated figures etc). This is a substantial review my team and I have been working on for a couple of years now, chipping away at it in the background as part of our NERC research project, and I'm really pleased with how it turned out. We posted it as a pre-print a few months ago on EarthArkiv, the first time I've used a pre-print server. I was hoping to engage in an open peer review process, but we didn't get any comments (do pre-prints really get peer reviewed...? A discussion for another blog post). On the plus side we did get 264 downloads before the paper made it through peer review with Earth Science Reviews.

One of the points we make (albeit briefly) in this paper is that coprolites should be subject to the same strict protocols for access and analysis that have been proposed for human skeletal remains. My original thinking behind this was that the information contained within coprolites is just as important and informative, and we should consider them as a finite resource in the same way as any other artefact. I've always promoted the fact that coprolites offer a way of looking at past health and diets without the ethical problems associated with destructive analysis of human skeletal remains, but recent conversations on twitter have made me reconsider this. I came across this discussion via the #DecolonizeDNA hashtag, and this tweet by Dr Keolu Fox in particular. The term 'bone rush' really stood out to me.


I've added a screenshot of the main point, but urge you to go and read the whole thread here, and read this comment in Nature. Whilst coprolites themselves are not 'precious' in the same way that human skeletal remains are, the genetic information that is potentially contained within them certainly is. Where to go from here? Should coprolites be treated with the same regard that we give to human skeletal remains? Should we focus on analytical methods such as lipids and microfossils, which can give information on health and diet without the ethical problems with DNA analysis?