Faulty science in DNA analysis of the Atacama ‘alien’ mummy

Our recently published international collaborative research calls into question the skeletal and genomic analysis, and ethics surrounding research into the much publicised alien-like “Atacama mummy”.

Here is Forbes coverage written by co-author Kristina Killgrove.

Our team published our findings yesterday in an open-access paper in the International Journal of Paleopathology. Here we evaluated work carried out on the mummy by Stanford University researchers, which was published in Genome Research earlier this year.

The mummy in question was discovered more than a decade ago in an abandoned town in the Atacama Desert of Chile and nicknamed “Ata”. In analysing this tiny mummified body, the Stanford researchers concluded genetic abnormalities could explain perceived abnormal characteristics of the skeleton, which was only 15cm long.

10833_800xLa Noria Cemetery in the Atacama Desert (via herbedisdeadly.files.wordpress.com)

As experts in human anatomy and skeletal development, we found no evidence for any of the skeletal anomalies reported by the Stanford researchers. All the abnormal characteristics cited by the Stanford researchers are part of normal skeletal development of a foetus.

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 the genetic mutations are known to be strongly associated with skeletal pathology that would affect the skeleton at this young age.

The situation highlights the need for an interdisciplinary research approach for a case study such as “Ata”. This case study allows us to showcase how drawing together multiple experts in osteology, medicine, archaeology, history and genetics is essential for accurate scientific interpretations and for considering the ethical implications of genomic analysis.

A nuanced understanding of skeletal biological processes and cultural context is essential for accurate scientific interpretation and for acting as a check on the ethics and legality of such research.

Co-author Bernardo Arriaza, a bioarchaeologist from the University of Tarapacá in Chile says it is crucial to consider the archaeological content in addition to an interdisciplinary approach. It is important to remember the situation is a pregnancy loss possibly from the very recent past.

“This mummy reflects a sad loss for a mother in the Atacama Desert,” Dr Arriaza says.

We also highlighted concerns around archaeological legislation and the ethics of carrying out research with no ethical consents, nor archaeological permits cited by the Stanford researchers.

We caution DNA researchers about getting involved in cases that lack clear context and legality, or where the remains have resided in private collections. In the case of Ata, costly and time-consuming scientific testing using whole genome techniques was unnecessary

We are also disappointed that co-authors Halcrow and Killgrove were unable to submit a response to the article and research in question to Genome Research. We were both told that Genome Research does not publish letters to the editor, only original research papers, despite senior authors Nola and Butte’s (the Stanford University researchers’) later response statement in which they seek to justify the ethics of their analyses.

For the scientific process to advance it is essential to have open debate through peer-reviewed journals

 

 

 

 

Egyptian ‘hawk’ mummy is a human foetus with a fatal birth defect

Recently researchers have made an unexpected discovery of a mummified foetus while CT scanning a 2300-year-old mummy known as Ta-Kush currently held at the Maidstone Museum in Kent. This coffin was labelled, “A mummified hawk with linen and cartonnage, Ptolemaic period (323 BC – 30 BC).”

Micro-CT scan shows the mummified stillborn human baby. Image: Maidstone Museum UK/Nikon Metrology UK

The high resolution CT scan results have recently been presented at the Extraordinary World Congress on Mummy Studies in the Canary Islands last month. The authors argue that the foetus was about 23-28 weeks gestation and had anencephaly as shown by underdeveloped skull bones.

To me, this begs the question as to whether the several other Egyptian ‘hawk’ mummies curated around the world are actually tiny babies. Further investigation of this baby and others will shed light on the social responses of grief and loss of those born too young to survive.

Watch here on YouTube Mummy ‘bird’ mystery

The coffin. Image: Western University

 

 

 

 

 

The Dark Story of the 19th Century Orphans of Amsterdam

Contribution by Krista Amira Calvo @trowel_and_bone

At the beginning of the 20th century, the remains of 1500 girls and young women were recovered from the DeLiefde cemetery in Amsterdam. After preliminary literary research into the collection, I became intrigued. I felt their remains would tell a story that paralleled historical documentations of illness, social status, and the fate of orphans in the past. What I did not anticipate was the startling percentage of the individuals uncovered did not survive beyond the age of four.

 

 

 

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From Amsterdam Het R.C. Maagdenhuis en het St. Elisabeth-gesticht by Ir.R. Meischke

The orphans that are the focus of my research, all females between the ages of two and 13 years, spent their final days in the Maagdenhuis Roman Catholic Orphanage for Girls from 1850-1900 (1). During my time spent in the lab with these orphans which number over 200 individuals, I was able to weave a narrative for the group of girls and young women who suffered greatly, and gain a more holistic view of care in the past in underfunded facilities that served as homes for the impoverished, orphaned and abandoned.

How did so many girls’ lives get cut short? In 19th century Netherlands it was common to lose one or both parents. Life expectancies were low, maternal mortality rates were high, and the population was plagued with epidemics of diseases such as smallpox and cholera (1). To address the growing number of orphaned children, the Dutch government passed a series of laws, one which ensured that any orphan under the age of 23 was placed in the care of a family member if one could be located (1). Family members were all too happy to bring an orphaned boy into the home, with their ability to someday provide for the family being a very appealing factor (1). However, this was not the case for far too many girls, leaving them abandoned and left to their own devices.

Place in society played a large role in the survival of the orphaned. The accessibility of better care due to high financial standing led an overall better quality of life and better survival rates. However, the orphans who were placed in underfunded institutions often suffered from malnutrition, rickets and other illnesses related to vitamin deficiencies, and infectious diseases such as leprosy (1). Diseases such as these leave markers on bone that can tell a story of hardship and suffering, and give us clues about health and community care in the past.

The standards of living in 19th century orphanages in the Netherlands were often atrocious. Poor hygiene conditions and tales of abuse weave a harrowing story of childhood experiences. This project was sobering, seeing that multitudes of imperative data that have historically been overlooked due to the lack of focus on children and young adults. The dearth of knowledge that could have otherwise been applied to current forensic casework involving children has left a void in methodology that must be filled in order to more accurately address life in the past on multiple levels (2).

maggdenhuis

From Amsterdam Het R.C. Maagdenhuis en het St. Elisabeth-gesticht by Ir.R. Meischke

Children are sensitive to their environment, and their remains leave many clues about population fertility, mortality, stress, and disease. My work attempts to continue to advance the bioarchaeology of childhood. We cannot make assumptions that children in the past had the same social experiences as they do in our current society. Thus, the bioarchaeology of childhood must be approached using both an assessment from the skeletal remains and the cultural context to create a better foundation for understanding care and the experiences of the young in the past.

References

[1] Beekink E, van Poppel F, Liefbroer AC. 1999. Surviving the loss of a parent in a

nineteenth-century Dutch provincial town. Journal of Social History, 32(3): 641-669

[2] Lewis, ME. 2007. The bioarchaeology of children: Perspectives from

biological and forensic anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

 

 

‘Freaks’ as museum exhibits: the case of the Boy of Bengal

Throughout history we have been obsessed with the ‘other’, the ‘weird’ and the wonderful. This is epitomised in the history of ‘freak shows’, which date back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century. From this time people with unusual physical characteristics often became objects of public curiosity and were shown throughout Europe and beyond. Some of the people shown had growth syndromes (e.g. dwarfism and gigantism), growth defects (e.g. ectrodactyly, or ‘split hand / ‘cleft handand microcephaly), albinism, and the very rare syndrome of hypertrichosis, sometimes called “werewolf syndrome”, which results in excessive hair on the face and body.

One ‘object of curiosity’ is the “Boy of Bengal” whose heads remain on display at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of London. He was born in rural Bengal in the late 18th century. His parents exhibited him publically around India, and in private gatherings. Unfortunately the boy died at the age of four from a cobra bite.

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twin

During the 18th and 19th centuries there was an increase in medical interest in these conditions, which resulted in these people being studied, and sometimes displayed in medical forums. These people often continued to be objectified after their death through the preservation of their bodies, or parts of their bodies, in museums and clinical settings.

The boy’s grave was robbed and body dissected by as salt agent from the East India Company, and his skull was given to the the British surgeon Everard Home who had expressed interest in his condition.

This condition is now known as Craniopagus parasiticus, which is a form of parasitic twins. Parasitic twins form when a fertilised egg does not split properly, and one embryo maintains dominant development at the expense of its twin. This process is the same as the development of conjoined twins but there is an underdevelopment of one of the twins.

It could be argued that today there is still a type of grotesque fascination of ‘oddities’, evidenced with the interest that people have with these types of historic museum items such as the Boy of Bengal. We also see a continuation of the intense interest in people with unusual physical conditions today, prime examples include conjoined twins making world news and being the subjects in reality TV shows.

The notorious ‘baby murderer’ from New Zealand

One of the most high profile cases of infanticide was committed by Minnie Dean in the late 19th century, also gaining infamy as the only woman in New Zealand to receive the death penalty for her crimes. During my childhood I heard many different stories of her hideous acts, made even more pertinent given that I grew up in the same small Southland town that these crimes were committed 100 years earlier. The stories revolved around how she murdered infants by piercing their fontanelles (‘soft-spots’ on the top of their heads) with hairpins, concealed them in hat boxes, and disposed of them in rivers. Kids in the playground at our local school used to taunt others by saying, “watch out or Minnie Dean will get you!”

Minnie Dean (1844-1895) was a ‘baby-farmer’ who cared for infants and children in an informal adoption relationship in exchange for money. This type of work was attractive to lower income women in New Zealand at the time, and in other parts of the British Empire. Those she took into care were largely illegitimate children.

Minnie and her husband Charles had financial issues, with records of filing for bankruptcy. After a fire destroyed their home they lived in a very small twenty-two foot by twelve foot house. At any one time there could be up to nine children under the age of three in her care.

In 1889 a six-month-old infant died in her care, and two years later a six-week-old baby died. The inquest from the six-week-old-baby concluded that the death was from natural causes and the other children at her house at the time were well cared for but that their living conditions were inadequate. In an era of high infant mortality (about 100 per 1000 births in NZ), it isn’t surprising that that some of the children would die from illness.

Minnie started to gain even more police interest when it was found that she had been looking for more children to care, as well as attempting, unsuccessfully, to take out life insurance policies on some of the babies.

In 1892 the police took into their care a three-week-old who Dean had adopted from a single mother for £25. The baby was reported to be in a malnourished state.

Then in 1895 Minnie was seen boarding a train carrying a young baby and a hatbox. However, on the return trip she was reported to only have the hatbox. She was subsequently arrested and police searched her property and found the bodies of two babies, later identified as Eva Hornsby and Dorothy Carter, and the skeleton of an older boy (whom Dean later claimed had drowned). An inquest found that Dorothy Carter had died from an overdose of opiate laudanum, commonly used to calm babies at the time.

Before her death by hanging in August 1895, Dean wrote her own account of her life. In total, apart from her adopted children, she claimed to have cared for twenty-six children. Of these, five were found in good health after her arrest (figure below, and Esther Wallis, one of her adopted children), six had died in her care, and one had been given back to her parents. This leaves 14 children unaccounted for.

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There was, understandably, intense public interest around Minnie Dean’s case. Around the time of her convictions macabre dolls in miniature hat boxes were said to have been sold as souvenirs outside the Invercargill courtroom where Dean was tried.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 4.30.47 PM‘Minnie Dean dolls’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/minnie-dean-dolls, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Oct-2014

Later, Minnie Dean’s own defence lawyer Alfred Hanlon wrote:

Sober, home-loving folk from end to end of the country shuddered … when the grim and ghastly story of Minnie Dean’s infamy was narrated by the prosecution. Imagine a being with the name and appearance of a woman boldly using a public railway train for the destruction of her helpless victims, sitting serene and unperturbed in a carriage with one tiny corpse in a tin box at her feet and another enshrouded in a shawl and secured by travelling straps in the luggage rack at her head.

 

After her conviction the New Zealand government made the process of foster parenting more regulated to stop tragedies like this happening again.

In 1994 Historian Lynley Hood published a book, Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes, which raises some questions surrounding the fairness of her trial and the facts in the case. Was she a victim of hypocrisy of Victorian society doing the dirty work of caring for unwanted and illegitimate children? One will never truly know, but her name remains part of New Zealand history and grisly folklore today.

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Why do we have baby teeth?

Baby teeth, also known as milk teeth or deciduous teeth, start forming in the jaws of a baby in utero with the front teeth almost fully formed (apart from the roots) by the time of birth. Baby teeth erupt from about 6 months starting with the front teeth and are usually all present by the age of two and a half years. The first permanent grinding tooth (molar) erupts just behind the last baby molar. Then the front baby teeth get slowly replaced with permanent teeth and by about 12 years of age all the permanent teeth are erupted in the mouth and by adulthood most people have their 3rd molars (“wisdom teeth”).

The jaws of infants and children are far too small to accommodate the larger permanent teeth. Baby teeth are essential for the development of the mouth. They maintain the jaw length, and provide guides for the eruption pathway and therefore proper placement of permanent teeth.

Humans aren’t the only species who have two sets of teeth, but not all animals who have teeth have two sets. Some animals, such as hamsters and moles, only have one set of teeth in their lifetime. Most other vertebrates such as reptiles and fishes have the ability to replace their teeth over and over again. The tooth sizes are very similar and non-specialsed.

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So, really, the question is why do we only have one set of baby teeth and permanent teeth!

Mammals have very specialised sets of teeth that need to fit together properly to work well. Each tooth has a specific function and they need to work together as a unit, which makes chewing much more efficient for the purposes of getting nutrients from food. If they are constantly being shed and replaced throughout life the precision matching of shape and size of neighbouring teeth that enable that efficient chewing is lost.

But there is a trade off with developing such specialised teeth – it takes more energy to make them, so we are left with one set of teeth during development and one throughout our whole adulthood.

 

First sighting of a wild newborn chimpanzee taken from mother and cannibalised.

The first ever witnessed case of a newborn wild chimpanzee being taken from the mother and subsequently eaten was published by researchers from Japan this week in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The authors explain that this most likely occurred because the pregnant chimpanzee did not go on “maternity leave”, a period near the time of birth that the mother chimpanzee hides and gives birth alone.

Just a matter of seconds after the mother, Devota, gave birth and before she could touch her newborn, an adult male chimpanzee, Darwin, picked up the infant and took it into the bush. The researchers therefore couldn’t confirm if it was a live or still birth or the sex of the infant. Darwin and other members of the group were subsequently seen eating the newborn. At the time of the incident in 2014, there were about 60 members in the group, with 20 adult females and 10 adult males.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 11.55.38 PM.pngPhoto of Darwin with the infant that was subsequently cannibalised (Nishie and Nakamura 2018).

There have been 45 sightings of infanticide in wild chimpanzee groups in six different populations, but never around the time of birth. This incident occurred in group “M” from the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, which have been studied since 1968. The authors found clear evidence for maternity leave from data from their daily attendance records between 1990 and 2010 with a total of 94 births to 36 females.

Infanticide perpetrated by males has been observed in many primate species and is usually explained as being a male reproductive strategy, whereby males increase their chance of fathering an infant by killing unrelated infants, and results in the mothers becoming fertile again sooner after birth.

The authors propose explanations for why Devota gave birth without “maternity leave”: 1) the baby was preterm and was therefore “not expected”; 2) it was her first pregnancy and had not learned the behaviour of “maternity leave”; and 3) she felt safe in the group as she may have copulated with a number of males around the time of conception of the infant.

Bringing Breastfeeding from the Past into the Present – by guest blogger Dr. Charlotte King

Bringing Breastfeeding from the Past into the Present – some recent coverage from our chapter published in this awesome new book!

Anthrolactology

This month, Anthrolactology welcomes Dr. Charlotte King. Dr. King is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Otago, New Zealand.  Her research focusses on the emergence of agricultural societies and the way in which this transition has shaped human culture and biology. She uses chemical analysis of human tissues to understand diet and human mobility in the past, as well as processes in the burial environment which might have impacted upon bone composition.

The importance of infant-feeding practices in modern societies has long been noted by clinical professionals and anthropologists, but people who study the human past (like bioarchaeologists) are also interested in breastfeeding and weaning. The knock-on effects of changes to breastfeeding and weaning practices for maternal and infant health, and mortality rates mean that they can have important implications for societies. They can contribute to population growth or increases in infant and maternal mortality. In a sense…

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