Earlier this year, scientists from Stanford University concluded that a strange skeleton, known as the Atacama mummy, corresponded to a human girl whose physical deformities were the result of several more severe genetic mutations. An international team of experts questions these results and accuses the scientists of having breached the standard research ethics.
The Atacama Mummy or Ata, as it is called, was discovered 15 years ago in a deserted Chilean town in the Atacama Desert. The specimen is only about six inches long, it lacks a few ribs and it has a severely deformed head and face. Of course, some UFO logists discovered that the mummy was of an extraterrestrial origin, which resulted in a short documentary.
Scientific research suggested otherwise. A study conducted in 2013 by Garry Nolan, an immunologist at Stanford University, concluded that Ata was a human and that the bones of the skeleton gave the impression that it was between six and eight years old. Earlier this year, Nolan and his colleague Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California-San Francisco, conducted a follow-up visit. This article, published in the journal Genome Research, provided evidence showing that a number of genetic mutations were responsible for the strange features that were seen in the malformed specimens. The researchers concluded that Ata was a girl of Chilean descent who was a developing fetus at the time of her death and suffered from a rare bone aging disorder.
Within days of publication of the study, there was controversy. The Chilean National Monuments Council launched an investigation, saying that the remnants of the mummy may have been caused by illegal smuggling and grave robbery, and that the research was completely inappropriate. Some Chilean scientists went so far as to say that genome research paper should be withdrawn.
Now, four months after the paper's release, Nolan and Butte face another attack, this time from an international team of experts led by Sian Halcrow of the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her new work, published today in the International Journal of Paleopathology, claims that Nolan's research is full of errors and misinterpretations, and that a genetic study probably should not have been done.
The authors of the new article found "no evidence" for the skeletal abnormalities described in the genome research paper. The abnormalities described by Nolan and Butte are consistent with the normal development of the fetal skeleton.
"We are experts in the development of human anatomy and archeology, and the mummy looks normal for a fetus at 15-16 weeks ago," said Kristina Killgrove, bioarchaologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author of new study, in an interview with Gizmodo. "For the average person, I understand how Ata looks funny, but that's because the average person does not develop fetuses or mummies."
The researchers found, for example, no evidence for the genome's bone abnormalities research paper, nor any evidence to support the claim that Ata's bones gave the appearance of a person aged six to eight years. The missing 11th and 12th ribs are normal for a fetus of this age, the researchers say, as these ribs have not yet fully formed.
As for the deformed skull, the researchers refer to a number of possibilities, including a process called "plastic deformation," in which the skull is deformed due to heat pressure when buried in the ground. The researchers say that Ata's cranial bones are "altered" by the mother's cervix during childbirth in a process known as forming, a phenomenon sometimes seen in severe premature babies. "The elongated skull of Ata is therefore phenotypically normal for a liberated premature baby," the researchers write in the study.
Finally, the researchers found no skeletal evidence of the genetic conditions cited in Nolan's last work.
"Unfortunately, there was no scientific reason to perform genome analysis of Ata, because the skeleton is normal, the identified genetic mutations may be random, and none of the genetic mutations are known to be strongly associated with skeletal pathologies that are associated with "The skeleton at this young age," Halcrow said in a statement.
The inadequate nature of the genome research study, the authors emphasize, highlights the need for interdisciplinary research approaches, which in this case should include experts in osteology, medicine "Archeology, History, and Genetics." "A differentiated understanding of skeletal processes and cultural contexts is essential for accurate scientific interpretation and verification of the ethics and legality of such research," said Halcrow.
Bernardo Arriaza, a bioarchaeologist of the Unive Tarapacá in Chile and a co-author of the new study, said Nolan and his colleagues should have considered the archaeological context in which the mummy was found. It is possible that Ata is a malformed fetus, and from the recent past. "This mummy is a sad loss for a mother in the Atacama Desert," he said.
The authors also complain that the genome research did not include an ethics statement or a notification of an archaeological permit.
"Given the fact that the mummified fetus was clearly human, the geneticists did not have to conduct any further tests," said Killgrove, "but more problematic than that, once they've tested that it's human, they do not have it right away stopped and questioned the forensic or archaeological ethics. Whether the fetus mummy was ancient or younger, Chile needs permits for this type of test. We believe that these geneticists should have a specialist in the development of skeletal biology right from the start, as they would not have made any beginners mistakes. But we also want to use that as a warning – genetic experts need to be informed about old and modern laws and ethics around testing.
Gizmodo turned to both Garry Nolan and Atul Butte for their comments and perspectives on the new International Journal of Paleopathology paper, but no answer was received at the time of publication of this article In March 2018, Nolan and Butte responded to earlier questions on complaints by the Chilean National Monuments Council:
We reaffirm the need to respect the traditions of other cultures in genomic analysis, as we have stated earlier that we believe that the skeletal remains should be returned to the country of origin, and this research confirms that these remains should be repatriated.This research illustrates what has been a very public and sensationalized history for a long time, and it was out of the desire to have some humanity to this discussion and dignity e of the skeleton.
The skeleton was never owned by either Stanford or UCSF, and we had nothing to do with removing the skeleton from its place of origin. The DNA and images are from remnants that were not known as human at the beginning of the research. It does not provide identifiable information about a living individual, as defined by federal regulations, and is not suitable as research for human subjects, as the Federal Office for the Protection of Human Research does. It has long been known that this skeleton was privately held in Spain, without any accusations of criminal behavior as it was acquired.
Nolan told the New York Times in March that he had no reason to believe that the mummy was being acquired illegally, and it was not obvious that it was a human specimen. Subsequently, his team did not require permission from Stanford University to study a skeleton that may have belonged to a nonhuman primate.
We will update this post should we hear from Nolan or Butte.
[International Journal of Paleopathology]