Well, we had hoped it wouldn't happen, but in the media-hype age we guess it's unavoidable. Our copy of Nature arrived today, the issue with the genome sequences of Archbiship Desmond Tutu and several Khoisan-speaking 'Bushmen', (in the past, at least, it had become protocol to call them by the former cultural-linguistic rather than the latter originally potentially pejorative name), which we blogged about here . The cover, showing San individuals marching across open country, bows and arrows in hand, makes nice anthropology in classical National Geographic style, setting the stage.
The cover's main heading "Southern African Genomes" is fine. But the photo, and the subheading, are not and especially for a leading science publication which should know better. The subheading is "Genetic variance in the oldest known modern human lineage." That description is completely wrong, and in a way falls into classical colonialist thinking of people like the San as 'other', relative to our noble selves. The authors knew this because we'd talked to them about it (they're here at Penn State), so we presume the cover was Nature's editorial (or Sales Pandering Department) decision, not the authors'.
The San genomes are no older than any other human genomes, of course--including yours, whoever you are who may be looking at this post. We all go back to the same set of common ancestors. What the proper description should be is something to the effect that the San have humans' most divergent sequences, meaning that the San sequences are more different from each other, and have a deeper common origin relative to other populations; another way to put that is that it's been longer since they shared common ancestry. That reflects isolation of small local populations, the result of being displaced by the fairly recent Bantu expansions, and other demographic factors, but in no way are today's San 'ancient'. It's sad to see this misconception, with the accompanying picture, perpetuated here. But it's a persistence of classical thinking in our society.
Now besides calling them ancient, is it just gratuitous political correctness for us to object to the San being pictured on Nature's cover? Well, ask yourself why they didn't put a picture of Desmond Tutu (not necessarily nude) as their cover instead? Why the exotica of four naked arrow-toting San marching through the tall grass? This is classical gawking at the inferior 'other'.
On the other hand, the San live the way photographed and they supposedly gave 'informed consent' to being studied (and depicted on a magazine with worldwide circulation?). There happens to be a clear-cut historical relevance here. In the 1800s, leading European scientists brought a Khoisan woman, Sarah Baarteman was her 'western' name, and exhibited her (naked) for Europeans to gawk at like a museum specimen--and especially her large buttocks and breasts, and extended labia minora (the 'Hottentot apron') to titillate Victorians. She was dubbed the 'Hottentot Venus'.
Is this more of the same colonialist exploitation? It is hard to say it's not. Where does legitimate anthropology end and exploitation begin? It's not a new question. Nature is clearly being exploitive. They could have used the sampled San's faces (which were in the article itself). It's inevitably related to the power differential and the fact that it's us studying them. Would we agree to be studied if some of them, in their native state, arrived at our doorstep asking if we'd be in their study?
Whether and how anyone is harmed by this kind of thinking only the future will tell. Whether it's been detrimental to indigenous populations in the past is also debatable, because clear-cut exploitation need not be seriously affected by such anthropological things. Fortunately, these kinds of whole genome sequence data are rapidly becoming so common that their circus value will properly diminish. Soon, it'll just be science, and then how valuable the actual information gathered is or isn't will be determined by the usual, and proper, determinants of scientific impact.