'Alien' Atacama Mummy Genetic Study Findings Raise Serious Concerns

An international team of researchers has questioned the findings of a study that argued that a bizarre skeleton found in the Atacama Desert was a human girl with severe genetic mutations.

In 2003, the tiny humanoid skeleton—which measures about 6 inches long and features a highly elongated head and face—was found in a deserted Chilean mining town.

The characteristics of the Atacama mummy, or Ata, as it became known, were so unusual that speculation abounded as to whether the skeleton was of extraterrestrial origin. But in 2013, a team from Stanford University announced the findings of research that suggested that Ata was, in fact, human.

However, many questions about the deformities remained, and so the scientists conducted a follow-up genetic analysis, which was published in the journal Genome Research earlier this year.

The paper concluded that Ata was a female of Chilean descent and was a developing fetus at the time of her death—which could have occurred before or immediately after pregnancy. Furthermore, the researchers provided evidence suggesting that Ata suffered from several genetic mutations that were responsible for her bizarre features.

However, in a study published on July 18 in the International Journal of Paleopathology, an international team of experts called into question the methods and conclusions of the previous research.

The authors of the new paper could not find any evidence of the "skeletal anomalies" that the Genome study suggested are responsible for the mummy's bizarre features, stating that many of its conclusions were based on a misunderstanding of fetal development.

In the Paleopathology study, the authors argued that the fetus looked normal for its age—which was estimated to be around 15 weeks—despite its strange appearance.

As for the "elongated cranium," this could be explained, they said, by both geological and birth processes that have affected the skeleton.

"It is common for a process called plastic deformation to alter the shape of cranial remains that have been interred in the ground, where heat and pressure can slowly affect their shape," the authors wrote.

"Additionally, a fetus of this age does not have the same cranial proportions of a full-term fetus," they said. "Furthermore, during delivery, the relationships between the cranial bones may be altered from compression of the bones in the cervix in a process referred to as molding. Such molding can reduce the skull diameter, resulting in an elongated appearance; this has been shown to be more severe in preterm fetuses."

In addition, the authors of the latest paper said the previous research also raised a number ethical concerns, especially given that the mummy is thought to be just a few decades old and the context in which they were discovered remained unclear.

They argued, that the Stanford scientists did not follow the correct protocols for studying human remains, which are protected by law in Chile, like in many countries. Furthermore, the DNA extraction techniques that were used caused damage to Ata's body.

"Unfortunately, there was no scientific rationale to undertake genomic analyses of Ata, because the skeleton is normal," the authors wrote in the new study. "Costly and time-consuming scientific testing using whole genome techniques was unnecessary and unethical."

"We caution DNA researchers about getting involved in cases that lack clear context and legality," they concluded.

Following the publication of the Genome study in March, the Chilean National Monuments Council also criticized the Stanford scientists saying that the mummy—which is now held by a private collector in Spain—may have been illegally exhumed and smuggled out of the country. In their view, the research should never have been conducted.

In response to this controversy, the editors and publishers of Genome Research issued a statement defending their paper.

The head of the Atacama skeleton: It was believed that Ata had turricephaly, which causes the skull to be steeped upward and somewhat pointed. An international research team of researchers has now questioned whether the skeleton found in the Atacama Desert was a human girl with severe genetic mutations. Courtesy of Dr. Emory Smith

"The manuscript underwent rigorous peer review by experts in evolutionary genetics and paleogenomics and the editors of Genome Research stand behind the review process and the publication of this paper," they said in the statement.

"Current human subjects research policies do not typically cover the study of specimens of uncertain biological origins, such as the Atacama skeleton," they said. "The DNA sample from the Atacama skeleton did not qualify as human subjects research as defined by the Federal Office of Human Research Protections. Thus, neither specific approval nor exemption was required for the study reported in the paper."

Nevertheless, the editors said they took the concerns that have been raised seriously and will look to review the journal's policies on publishing studies involving historical and ancient DNA samples.