Decades ago, scavengers rummaging through an abandoned church in a long-forgotten derelict mining town in Chile’s Atacama desert came across a gruesome and bizarre find: a tiny, seemingly anomalous skeleton. The entire skeleton can fit in a human hand, and is topped by an oversized skull with conspicuously large eye sockets. Naturally, the skeleton was accused of belonging to an extraterrestrial or ET-human hybrid and has since been the subject of speculation, rumor, and mystery.
Earlier this year, however, geneticists and immunologists from Stanford University obtained permission to perform genetic testing on the anomalous skeleton to conclusively identify who or what it may have once belonged to. According to their analysis, the skeleton is merely an unfortunate example of how there are both winners and losers in the gene pool lottery. Their study concluded that the Atacama skeleton belongs to either a six-to-eight year-old child who suffered from a host of rare and deformative genetic disorders, or to an unborn fetus with an advanced aging disorder. It’s never aliens.
Now, a new paper is calling that study into question – but not because there is evidence to suggest the Atacama skeleton might be anything more than it has already been determined to be. Instead, both the Chilean government and an international group of scientists and medical researchers are slamming the study for two reasons: one, an improper use of genomic testing; and two, ethics violations. Nerd fight!
On one hand, this new paper accuses the genetic testing of the Atacama skeleton, or Ata, of being improperly carried out:
Unfortunately, there was no scientific rationale to undertake genomic analyses of Ata because the skeleton is normal, the identified genetic mutations are possibly coincidental, and none of them are known to be strongly associated with skeletal dysplasias that would affect the phenotype at this young age.
These scientists believe “it is most likely a coincidence that the authors found this individual [the Atacama skeleton] had some mutations in genes” because the type of mutations found typically don’t have an effect on physiological until much later in fetal development.
More worryingly, the authors of this new paper accuse the analysis of Ata to be unethical. Once it was deemed that the skeleton belonged to a human and that the relatives or parents of the individual were likely still living, the authors write, the skeleton should have been immediately returned to Chile:
We caution DNA researchers about getting involved in cases that lack clear context and legality, or where the remains have resided in private collections. […] Had these researchers involved, from the beginning, a biological anthropologist who specialises in human remains, we are certain that ethical concerns would have been raised regarding the potentially living relatives of Ata.
This case, even though it deals with a recent specimen individual, highlights one of the gruesome and dehumanizing side of archaeology. Think about it: all of those mummies and skeletons we dig up were once people who were carefully interred with intention and the belief that they would remain undisturbed in the ground. Who are we to dig up the bones of those who came before us in the name of “progress” or advancing knowledge? Is nothing – or no one – sacred? While it’s important to know where we came from, it’s just as important to hold some degree of reverence for the dead. At what point in history do we draw the line?