Returning the results of a genetic study: Chachapoyas, Peru

Last month I had the chance to visit the town of Chachapoyas, north Peru, for a very important mission: returning the genetic results of our study about the linguistic and historical diversity of the region. That was a special occasion to discuss what we learned from the project, to meet friends again, and last but not least, as a geneticist, to get feedback from the participants of the study and learn which information is more meaningful to them. But what does it mean returning genetic results? how should we do it, and why is it important? With this first post I want to approach a theme that is often neglected in our field.

Geneticists who study human diversity and variation collect new data from voluntary participants in different ways. They often reach hospitals or other similar facilities, commonly when they study variation connected to medical conditions; but they also approach communities who live in regions of interest, commonly when they study population history, movements, contact and origins. When we study population history we do not produce material results that we can share in return of people kind participation. Knowledge is not monetizable. But knowledge must be shared. We can diffuse our results within the scientific community with dedicated publications, but we must also share it with the society at large, and in particular with the people who participated in the first place. It is our responsibility to earn the trust of the citizens, keep formal arrangements, and to diffuse the results in a meaningful way, reaching local participants.

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This project on the genetic and linguistic characterization of Chachapoyas makes for a good case to approach the topic. Everything began when my colleague Paul Heggarty, linguist expert of Quechua and Andean prehistory, visited Chachapoyas to get recordings of the local Quechua variety, thought to be almost extinct. To his surprise, not only he met Quechua speakers fluent enough to represent the nuances of this language variety, but what he heard reinforced his suspicions of an alternative classification within the vastly spoken Quechua family (for more info about the Quechua language family, see my research project page).

One of the best allies for historical linguistics is molecular anthropology: the study of the genetic diversity of a region, in fact, reveals demographic dynamics that can help the linguist to understand how a language came to be spoken in a certain area, and connect the history of a language with the history of the speakers. The ultimate shared goal of such a joint research effort is to understand human past and present diversity.

I am glad to be in Paul’s circuit of geneticists of trust. After he contacted me I agreed it was a great set up for a case study on Andean prehistory, and we immediately started to arrange a dedicated research project. The opportunity was accompanied by a favorable wave: in a few months we found resources from the Max Planck Society and the right research partners to set up a joint genetic-linguistic fieldwork. In February 2015 we reached Chachapoyas, region of Amazonas, and its beautiful landscape of cloud forest, lush green surrounded by mist, in the eastern slope of the Andes (spanning roughly between 2000-3000 m of altitude). The team was composed by two geneticists (including myself) and two linguists: José Raul Sandoval is an expert of Peruvian genetic diversity, and carried many fieldwork expeditions in South America; Aviva Shimelman is a polyhedral researcher with years of expertise in Quechua languages; Jairo Valqui, whose family is originally from the same surroundings of Chachapoyas, is a linguist who spent years in reconstructing traces of the ancient (now extinct) Chacha language from recurrent sounds in toponyms (i.e. names of towns and locations) and surnames. We spent a few weeks travelling in the department of Amazonas and San Martín, meeting many people who supported our project and wanted to know more about the history of the region. It was a fantastic journey, which would need a dedicated post to make justice to all the adventures, the excitement of putting pieces of the puzzle together, the rocambolesque trips in minivan in the middle of the night, and the friendships we built. I got very attached to this project, to the people involved, and to the beautiful places: while returning home, I was already looking forward to the day I could bring back the results of this research.


The church in the main square of Chachapoyas

After months of long shifts in the lab, data analysis and more or less boring hours in front of the computer making sense of the numbers, I started collecting results, and I organized a trip to Peru to discuss the main findings with my collaborators. With the crucial help of Jairo we set up a plan to return the results to Chachapoyas. This is finally the moment when the project becomes alive: sharing the results, talking about them, interpreting them together. The project leaves the files of my computer and becomes shared narrative: a parallel path to the one of the scientific peer reviewed publications that will follow.

The town of Chachapoyas – La Fidelisima is famous for the variegate balconies, characteristic of the colonial architecture

Again, our local contacts gave a very positive response and helped us to share the information. The local radio invited us for an interview, and the municipality welcomed us for a little conference in the central auditorium (here’s a video of a short interview). People were very curious about their genetic history. So we had our moment of attention to explain the main findings: an interesting challenge from our side. How to explain the concepts of genetic diversity and relatedness? Which terminology, which lines of evidence could be understood properly, and could make sense for the audience? I prepared my material focusing on some concepts that I find fundamental.

  • Be aware of the risk to transmit a feeling of genetic determinism. This aspect behind the biological study of humans has been criticized by the popular media and the social sciences, and fed common misconceptions about what genes can and cannot tell us. Here‘s an overview about biological determinism. Many scholars brought the attention to the perils in communicating genetics to the public (I will mention Kim Tallbear, enlightening to me for her work on native American DNA). For me is clear that you are NOT defined by what the genetic data tells. This is only ONE PART of the complex history of a region, and one part of the complex history that builds each one’s identity and family history. Even more when, like in this case, we are working with uniparental markers (mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome DNA): this is only a partial view of one individual’s ancestry, and of the community’s ancestry.
  • Separate the individual history from the community history: we work on the genetic variation of a sample of individuals, so the stories that we reconstruct refer to the community level, or “gene pool”.
  • Control for local histories, origin myths, and current social structure. What if the genetic results are clashing with the local narratives? What if, for example, the genetic results are telling a group that they are genetically identical to their hated neighbors (no matter how serious or superficial might be the reasons of this divide)? Be prepared to incorporate these conflicting histories into the overall plot. This was not the case for Chachapoyas, but I am aware of more challenging situations from previous research projects.
  • Set an appropriate background for the conversation. We are all related, to some degree: to reconstruct history and contact we look at subtle genetic differences between groups.

After the presentation I wanted to collect feedback to point out blind spots in my analyses and inform my perspective. I was very interested in the questions and comments from the audience, where I could recognize some of the same people who donated an anonymous saliva sample for the analyses. I took note of some important points which I want to integrate in my research.



Explaining the genetic and linguistic results with Dr. Jairo Valqui (photo credits: Municipalidad de Chachapoyas)
  • Time frame matters. Many questions concerned the time frame where I could situate the patterns of genetic relatedness emerging from the data. It makes a huge difference to talk about contact that could have happened during the past century, or at the time of the Inca empire, or at the time of the earliest occupation of the region. We often are not able to situate these patterns of genetic structure in a precise time frame, and we should consider this uncertainty. Alternatively, we should focus more on the time contextualization incorporating analyses grounded with of appropriate mutation rates.
  • Existing narratives are important. The audience in Chachapoyas, composed by curious citizens, touristic guides and scholars (a very attentive audience in fact) was very informed about theories proposed by researchers and other sources, based on historical and archaeological investigations. A recurrent theme is the supposed European origin (in particular, Celtic) of the Chachapoyas founders. This theory is based on weak evidence, and has problematic implications (how could Eurasian people cross the Atlantic ocean in pre-colonial times and leave descendants only in Chachapoyas, but not in any other South American population for which we have genetic data available?), but has a certain appeal. Our genetic data do not support this hypothesis, but I must admit, cannot reject it completely, either – more fine grained analysis would be required to properly test this perspective. One lesson should be reminded, though: sensationalist claims tend to stick well, even when available proof is scanty at best.

I hope there will be an occasion to return for a second phase of genetic analysis on the diversity of the region, but the truth is that these are difficult promises to maintain. Not often enough we are able to secure funding and set aside time in the calendar for these journeys. Yet, it is so fundamental, as geneticists/anthropologists, for our discipline first: how much we learn when communicating our science, our results, to the same participants of the study. How much it makes sense in the light of sharing knowledge. How can we incorporate this step in our research plans? As I mentioned, funding is crucial, but difficult to obtain: no dedicated programmes are planned by institutions and funding parties. The Wenner-Gren foundation for anthropological research is one of the few that has a dedicated grant application to return the results of a research to the community in the region of research. More efforts should be dedicated towards this crucial aspect of scientific dissemination and fruition, which should be signaling good science practice for a research institute and be a point of merit in academics’ curricula.

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