The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

From scientific specimen to indigenous cultural property: the collection and use of Australian indigenous DNA samples since the 1960s


Discipline of Anthropology, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

Thursday 9:30-9:45, Galleria North Add to calendar

Thousands of blood samples taken from Australia’s Indigenous people lie in institutional freezers of the global North. In Australia and elsewhere, some of these collections were initiated in the 1960s by scientists eager to understand human biology and aided by technological changes in transportation and preservation that supported the transformation of body parts of indigenous peoples into the ‘material culture’ of biomedical science. For over 30 years, these samples, and the information derived from them, circulated through networks of scientific exchange. Through the decades samples have remained suspended in time, while outside the freezer both genomic science and research ethics have experienced profound transformations. Some indigenous donor communities in Australia and elsewhere now view samples not as scientific gifts but as cultural property and an extension of the collective indigenous body. While many scientists consider research on older samples as a universal good with potential to improve indigenous, national and global health, some indigenous people view such research as a neocolonial injury. Although some sample collections held outside Australia are still actively used for genetic research, this is viewed as maverick and unethical by most Australian genetic researchers who have closer relationships with Indigenous Australians, national bioethical norms and postcolonial politics. This brief paper explores these issues, drawing from an ongoing ethnographic study of indigenous DNA collections and genetic researchers who work in indigenous communities across Australia.

Research for this presentation was supported by an Australian National Health and Medical Research Council Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Training Fellowship (#454813).

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