By Jason Silverstein

Sometime in March 2011, the UK Border Agency quietly abandoned their Human Provenance Project, which sought to uncover the "true" origins of African asylum seekers.1 The Border Agency proposed to "use DNA and isotope analysis of tissue from asylum seekers to evaluate their nationality and help decide who can"-and who cannot-cross the border.2 Following the announcement of the project, Science published an open letter from such noteworthy scientists as Alec Jeffreys which decried the pilot as "flawed," "horrifying," and "wildly premature."3 The editors of Nature Biotechnology wrote that "the project urges us to consider the risks and implications of appropriating genomic data for discriminatory ends, such as border control."4 Yet, as the Human Provenance Project was conducted, so it concluded, with few details released for public scrutiny. The Border Agency did not disclose a single scientist or laboratory that conducted the tests. The reference dataset that served as the metric for "truth" remains confidential. No data or evaluation will see the light of day. The project that was to reveal the identities of asylum seekers has thoroughly concealed its own.

In 2009, the UK Border Agency began the Human Provenance Project to calm anxieties over "nationality swapping," a worry that East Africans would claim Somalia as their country of origin and receive an unjustly favorable asylum decision. The project's agenda would be to determine the "truly" Somali-and, thus, the most worthy of resettlement-using DNA and isotope studies as ethnic proofs. For the DNA arm, the UK Border Agency used mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosome, and SNP testing in order to infer ancestry and thus, supposedly, nationality.5 In this essay, I focus on the isotope analysis dimension as I believe it brings into sharp relief the conflict between state identification and personal identity, and how technologies of biography often conceal as much as they reveal.

Isotope analysis identifies differences in the occurrence of stable isotopes in order to trace chemical compounds or elements of interest. This methodology is especially useful in archaeology, ecology, and the environmental sciences, and has helped answer questions regarding food sources, prey choice, and chemical turnovers in soil. Recently, however, this technique has gained traction as a forensic tool. Most notably, isotope analysis was used in 2001 by the UK's National Environment Research Council Isotope Geosciences Laboratory to trace a murdered boy's torso back to Nigeria in what became known as the "Adam" case.6 That analysis was conducted on Adam's bone. The UK Border Agency used this sensational case as proof of principle of isotope analysis in forensics. However, rather than extract bone, the Border Agency settled upon hair and fingernails for their origin quest. One scientist described this methodological shift as "adding 2 plus 2 and getting 3 ½."7

Interviewing isotope specialists, I asked if isotope analysis was a reliable test to differentiate between Somalis and Kenyans, especially those who live on the borderland. It seemed to me that this border situation would be revealing, affording us the most glaring glimpse into the predictive power of the test. Some simple yet unsettling facts emerged quickly in my conversation with Janet Montgomery, an isotope specialist at Durham University.

First, the border between two East African countries is political and reflects the choice of man, not nature. There is no reason to suspect that the common and rare forms of an element would simply align themselves according to man-made boundaries. "Unless the border between Somalia and Kenya represented some major geological or hydrological division," Montgomery wrote, "I cannot see how isotopes will discriminate between people living there let alone living at/on the border." As Montgomery sharply stated it: "Isotopes do not respect national borders or convey some inherent national attribute. They are not passports." While one may sometimes be able to distinguish between those living in the UK and those living in New Zealand, for example, such a distinction cannot be made between areas that are not geologically unique; that is to say, precisely the ones that were of interest to the UK Border Agency.

Beyond the geological and hydrological divisions, it does not take much to skew isotope test results, as Jason Newton of the University of Glasgow remarked. One's diet affects the results of isotope analysis. Consuming imported food (for example, from an aid agency) would skew the results toward the food's country of origin. Even mundane items can corrupt the sample, such as meat, beer, and dairy. Checks on hair obviously are only as meaningful as its length. Consider as well the cross-border trade of commercial goods and cattle, as well as the dominance of a single ethnic group, namely Somali, on both sides of the border.

Even in situations beyond the Somali-Kenyan border, we should be careful to recall that refugees often spend years in camps, if ever they should be resettled. However, isotope analysis of hair and nails only reflects the past four to six weeks of one's environmental exposures. In one interview with a refugee and immigration caseworker in Boston, I was given the anecdote of a man who spent nineteen years in a refugee camp prior to resettlement. An isotope test would no longer identify him as Somali; his identification would now conflict with his identity. His life, according to the Border authorities, would have been literally changed by the experience. 

Although the UK Border Agency has not released the data that underpinned their pilot testing, Newton's answer to my question on how he might "ground-truth" the analysis given unlimited resources makes it difficult to believe that such a dataset actually exists:

Good groundtruthing would require a large sample of people from all parts of the UK volunteering their hair or fingernails to the study, analyzing H, O, C, N and S isotope ratios to each sample (probably around $100 per person)... another time-related problem is that H and O isotope ratios, which are ultimately related to precipitation isotope ratios, which vary in latitude/altitude and distance from the sea, are variable between seasons (because of temperature changes), but also (less so) between years. This would imply that the groundtruthing would have to be a continuous project (preferably with samples from the same people).

In order to utilize isotope analysis to draw out the "truth" of one's past, world coverage over a continuous time frame would be established. But currently, according to Ken Pye, the forensic geologist who helped solve the "Adam" case, such an isotopic map of the world does not exist.8

What can isotope tests tell us? Currently, in the best-case scenario, Montgomery suggests that the tests provide "exclusive" results (that is to say, the tests can only exclude environments that a person recently inhabited), but cannot provide inclusive results with great specificity. Giving an example from her own recent work, she reports:

There are oxygen isotope ratios that would be inconsistent with Britain, for example, and suggestive of a much hotter or much colder place. I have just measured some samples from one of the Franklin Expedition sailors and he clearly was living in an extremely cold place before he died, but you know, the isotopes can't tell me if it was the Arctic or the Antarctic.

Though the test may appear at first glance, and be advertised as, objective and value-neutral, such an example reminds us that context and subjectivity is required to interpret the results.

In the working documents that were released, the UK Border Agency insisted that DNA and isotope technologies would be used only in conjunction with, and as a supplement to, traditional interviewing methods, including documentary evidence and a linguistic analysis.9 Ultimately, though, the weight of the DNA and isotope analysis can be calculated from the following fact: refusal to have one's past screened through DNA and isotope analysis was equivalent to failure of the test. The Human Genetics Commission, which is the advisory body on developments in human genetics for the UK Government, notes that Asylum Screening Units were "encouraged to 'draw a negative interference as to the applicant's credibility'" if the applicant refused DNA or isotope screening.10 In the opinion of the UK Border Agency, "a person in genuine need of international protection would assist the authorities."11 It is worth pausing to consider how this policy squares with informed consent.

What is especially chilling about the UK Human Provenance Project is that it combines procedural neutrality with biological technology. In my work on DNA testing and family reunification, case workers I interviewed have both lamented and praised the role that biological technologies of biography play in freeing them up to be "indifferent," rather than emotionally troubled that they may have wrongfully decided someone's fate through miscalculations of traditional forms of evidence. Struggling with deep feelings of accountability for other lives, some of my informants have welcomed supposedly value-neutral technologies. And yet Montgomery and Newton force us to question whether these technologies provide infallible tests of "truth."

Though the UK Human Provenance Project is no longer, this extreme case tells us something about how the appearance of technologies of biography contains a transformative and seductive power. As Jean-Paul Sartre writes in his Search for a Method, we should think about this project as "a perspective of the future."12 Given the American political landscape concerning immigration in which immigrants are often depicted as masses of clandestine criminals, I believe we should hear this story as a cautionary tale. We should be hesitant, and suspicious, when procedural neutrality attempts to blot out human emotions and morals from processes of power. What we have seen in the case of the Human Provenance Project is what Hannah Arendt fears regarding fully formed bureaucracy. That is to say, when biological tests serve as the metric for the "truth" of one's past, "there is nobody left with whom one could argue."13


Jason Silverstein is a Ph.D. student at Harvard University in Social Anthropology.


1. “UK immigration cancels DNA screening programme,” Nature News Blog, 17 June 2011: 
2. John Travis, “Scientists Decry ‘Flawed’ and ‘Horrifying’ Nationality Tests,” Science Magazine, 29 September 2009: 
3. Ibid.
4. “DNA Confidential” in, Nature Biotechnology Vol. 27, No. 9, September 2009, pp. 777.
5. On the effectiveness of DNA technologies for nationality testing, geneticist Mark Thomas asserts in Science that “mtDNA will never have the resolution to specify a country of origin. Many DNA ancestry testing companies have sprung up over the last 10 years, often based on mtDNA, but what they are selling is little better than genetic astrology” (Travis 2009). For the debate over recreational ancestry testing, see DA Bolnick et al., “The Science and Business of Genetic Ancestry Testing” in, Science Vol 318, October 2007, pp. 399-400 and J Wagner and MD Shriver, “Misinformation, Social Construction, and Genomic Ancestry Testing” in Science, 19 December 2007: 
6. Giles Tremlett, “Tracing Adam,” Guardian, 7 August 2003:
7. John Travis, “Scientists Decry ‘Flawed’ and ‘Horrifying’ Nationality Tests,” Science Magazine, 29 September 2009:
8. Giles Tremlett, “Tracing Adam,” Guardian, 7 August 2003:
9. UK Border Agency, “Nationality Swapping- Isotope Analysis and DNA Testing,” 2009, Section 7.1.
10.  UK Human Genetics Commission, “The UK Border Agency’s Human Provenance Pilot Project,” Paper HGC09/P25, 2009, pp. 6.
11.  UK Border Agency, “Nationality Swapping- Isotope Analysis and DNA Testing,” 2009, Annex A.3.
12. Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method (New York: Vintage, 1968), pp. 86.
13. Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), pp. 81.

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