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

 

 

 

 

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