Bhattacharya et al. 2018
In 2003, Oscar Munoz found a mummy in the Atacama Desert ghost town of La Noria. The six-inch-long mummy, now called Ata, has an elongated skull, oddly shaped eye sockets, and only ten pairs of ribs... which helped fuel wild speculation that she was an alien hybrid. Ata was sold several times—probably illegally—and ended up in the private collection of Barcelona entrepreneur and UFO enthusiast Ramón Navia-Osorio. A 2013 documentary called Sirius soon helped immortalize Ata, focusing heavily on the alien hybrid claims.
When a team led by University of California, San Francisco bioinformatics researcher Sanchita Bhattacharya recently sequenced the tiny mummy’s genome, however, it revealed only a girl of Chilean descent. There were a complicated set of genetic mutations, including some usually associated with bone and growth disorders and a few more that have never been described before. Those mutations, the researchers claim, may help explain her unusual appearance.
It’s easy to see why the team's March paper attracted so much interest: a high-profile urban legend was fully debunked at last, but now there were hints at compelling medical discoveries. Most press outlets presented the results as conclusive, cut-and-dried science—except for a few UFO fan sites that loudly insisted the study was part of a cover-up. But even beyond the extraterrestrial exchanges, things have gotten very complicated, both in terms of the scientific claims and in terms of whether the research should have been done at all.
A scientific controversy
The complaints started only three days after Bhattacharya and her colleagues, including Stanford University immunologist Garry Nolan, published their paper in Genome Research. Chilean microbiologist Cristina Dorador of the University of Antofagasta published an article on Chilean science news site Etilmercurio, criticizing the geneticists for working with samples obtained from a mummy that had probably been illegally smuggled out of Chile. By March 28, The New York Times reported that the Chilean National Monuments Council had launched an official inquiry into the provenance of the remains, and Chilean anthropologists and archaeologists criticized the ethics of the study and called for a retraction of the paper.
Nolan and co-author Atul Butte, a computational biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, published a response in the journal Genome Research on March 30, defending the ethics and scientific merits of their work. The journal also issued a statement defending their ethical standards and decision to publish. But now a group of anthropologists is challenging not only the ethics but the science behind the study.
This group, led by University of Otago bioarchaeologist Siân Halcrow, claims that Ata’s appearance was never actually that unusual—if you know what the bones of a human fetus are supposed to look like halfway through gestation. And if they’re right, it means the genetic study was unnecessary in the first place to prove Ata’s humanity or to understand the appearance of her bones.
Bones of contention
“There is nothing about Ata that suggests she is anything but a mummified human fetus,” bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove of the University of West Florida and the Ronin Institute told Ars. “Her body looks like a normal fetus around the mid-point of development and most likely represents a miscarriage.”
Fetal skeletons don’t look quite like fully developed infants. A fetus’ 11th
ribs often haven’t developed by the middle of a pregnancy, for instance. And the process of passing through the birth canal tends to compress babies’ skulls into a slightly elongated, cone-like shape. Combine that with processes at work on the body after burial
, the archaeologists say, and Ata’s appearance makes perfect sense.
This argument first emerged in 2013, when Nolan announced the results of an initial genetic study to Science Magazine. Stony Brook University School of Medicine anatomist William Jungers, in an interview at the time, remarked, “Genetic anomalies are not evident, probably because there aren't any.” Jungers is now part of Halcrow’s group.
What about the mutations Bhattacharya and her colleagues found in Ata’s genome? Halcrow and her colleagues say that the ones usually associated with bone and growth disorders wouldn’t impact the appearance of Ata's skeleton so early in her development. And they argue that it could just be coincidence that the previously unidentified mutations turn up at locations associated with bone formation and growth. Mutations, especially ones that affect only a single DNA base, are surprisingly common. And generally, they have no effect on a person’s body because they occur in regions of DNA that don’t actually code for anything.
Although headlines have claimed that Bhattacharya and her colleagues found the genetic mutations that explain Ata's appearance, the researchers themselves have been much more cautious. In an interview with Ars prior to the study's publication, Bhattacharya said that it would take more work in the lab, possibly using mice as a model, to figure out whether these specific mutations actually cause any deformities.
Science and the dead
The uncertain state of the science is just part of the confusing picture that's emerging from the study, which has now spawned a government investigation in Chile and may have wide-reaching implications for ethical standards in similar studies.
Anthropology has (at best) a checkered past when it comes to body-snatching for science. But over the last century, a set of ethical standards has taken shape, and they’re clearly spelled out in guidelines from professional organizations
like the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Most anthropologists today believe that it’s unethical to do research on smuggled artifacts or human remains. It doesn’t matter whether or not the scientists were involved in the dirty work; they can’t take advantage of it, either. Most universities, research institutions, and journals expect anthropologists to submit an ethics statement, proving that they’ve checked to make sure the remains they’re studying have been obtained legally and ethically.
Genomics is a much younger science and hasn't developed these sorts of standards yet. At the moment, most of the established ethical guidelines—and US federal laws—for genomic studies relate to the privacy of living individuals’ identifiable genetic data. But with archaeological human remains, the usual concerns about individual privacy don’t apply; instead, concerns about the dignity of the dead and prevention of antiquities trafficking take the forefront.
“I and others are concerned that awareness of ethical best practices haven’t kept pace with the technological advances in paleogenomics research,” University of Kansas paleogenomics researcher Jennifer Raff told Ars. “There is such a rush to sequence samples that cases like this are happening all too often.”
Ata’s story may help push people working on DNA from archeological remains to develop ethical standards for their work. Even Nolan and other members of the Ata sequencing team have already acknowledged the need for changes in the field.
“Our recent communications with scientists, especially Chilean researchers, have deepened our insight into the need to incorporate cultural, historical, and political perspectives when studying ancient (or non-ancient) human DNA,” wrote Nolan and Butte in their March 30 response in Genome Research. “We also join in a call for renewed emphasis on educating genomics researchers and other investigators about the sensitive and ethical treatment of human remains.”
Nolan and his team say that when they began the study, rules about research on human subjects didn’t seem to apply, because at the time, no one was sure that Ata was human. It still seemed possible that the skeleton belonged to another species of primate.
“[The study] does not provide identifiable information about a living individual, as defined by federal regulations, and does not qualify as human subjects research, per the Federal Office of Human Research Protections,” Nolan and Butte said in a joint statement. But that doesn’t mean Ata’s case is free of privacy concerns.
When they began the study, Nolan and his colleagues were pretty sure Ata was at least a few hundred years old. They were surprised when the quality of the DNA sample revealed that her death had been much more recent—definitely within the last 500 years and probably much closer to 40 years ago. That means that she probably has immediate family members somewhere, still alive and perhaps reliving a heartbreaking loss as they watch the very public debates about Ata’s origins.
Bhattacharya and her colleagues submitted Ata’s genetic sequence to the Sequence Read Archive, which will make the data available to researchers and anyone else who’s curious. That means it may technically be possible to make a link between Ata and her living relatives if a sample of their DNA ever gets compared to Ata’s sequence. That scenario may be a little far-fetched, but the fact that it’s possible raises some potential concerns.
“I think that paleogenomics researchers have additional obligations above and beyond that of, say, osteologists, because the work they do can profoundly impact descendent communities,” said Raff.
The trailer for the Sirius documentary, which frames Ata as potential evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Ata's skeleton is in Spain now, and there's no permit from the Chilean government, so there’s almost no chance she got there legally. Under Chilean law, research involving archaeological sites within the country requires a permit from Chile’s National Monuments Council. That requirement would apply to removing anything from the cemetery at La Noria—let alone taking it out of the country and later sending samples to foreign scientists. At this point, it appears that no one ever obtained a permit for Ata.
That’s currently the backdrop for the Chilean investigation. Bhattacharya, Nolan, and Butte, of course, weren’t involved in finding Ata or bringing her to Spain. They didn’t enter the story until 2012, when Nolan heard about Ata and contacted the UFO enthusiasts behind the Sirius documentary, offering to do a genetic study. The researchers maintain that they had no knowledge of Ata’s origins.
“It is important to note that no member of the senior authorship team, nor any members of their labs, on our recent paper has ever seen or handled the skeleton itself, nor were we involved in its original acquisition, removal, sale, or export,” Nolan and Butte wrote in Genome Research. “Rather, approximately 1 cubic mm of bone was removed from the skeleton in Spain by the Sirius team, flown to the United States by a member of that team, and provided to Dr. Nolan.”
A couple of days earlier, Nolan and Butte said in a joint statement, “It has long been known that this skeleton was privately held in Spain, without any allegations of criminal conduct as to how it was acquired.” The unspoken implication in their statement seems to be that because they weren’t involved in the skeleton’s removal, or aware of any wrongdoing, their ethical bases are covered.
“Researchers must take responsibility for understanding the status of the remains with which they work and seek to obtain community support for their work,” said Raff. “It’s not sufficient to simply assume that permission from a museum is all one needs.”
Enter the anthropologists
It’s hard to imagine the team didn’t at least suspect that something was sketchy about the way Ata’s remains got from the church at La Noria to a private collection in Spain. According to the established ethical standards of biological anthropology, that means Nolan and his colleagues should have turned down the offer of samples and perhaps alerted authorities in Chile or Spain.
“This is an unfortunate example of the need for genomic specialists who do not have a grounding in archaeology or anthropology to collaborate with local archaeologists and specialists who will have an understanding of both the context and legalities of this type of analysis,” said Halcrow.
And as for not realizing she was human, Halcrow and her colleagues maintain that Ata’s humanity would have been obvious to a researcher who specialized in skeletal anatomy. "While DNA testing to refute a longstanding assumption of alien origin may be necessary in cases such as Ata's, given high public interest, if an anthropologist had been involved, I like to think she or he would have immediately raised ethical concerns regarding the potentially living relatives of Ata and regarding the potentially illegal removal of the mummy from Chile,” Killgrove told Ars.
By 2013, Nolan and his colleagues already knew enough to announce to Science Magazine that Ata was human and had probably died within the past few decades, so they must have been aware of the potential issues by that time.
And on top of that, there’s another small matter that Chilean law—the same law that requires a permit to study archaeological remains at all—requires the involvement of at least one Chilean researcher in the project. Bhattacharya’s team included none.
What do we do with ethically unclear science?
Several anthropologists have called for retraction of the paper, but at this time it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. The controversy may still spark a rethinking of ethical standards for genomics studies, however. At the moment, Genome Research doesn’t require an ethical statement from its authors, but it sounds as if that policy could be in the process of changing.
“This experience highlights the evolving nature of this field of research and has prompted our commitment to initiate community discussions aimed at establishing journal policies and author guidelines necessary for the publication of studies involving historical and ancient DNA samples,” wrote the editors of Genome Research in their statement.
In the meantime, Bhattacharya and her colleagues contend that their research has real value that shouldn’t be overlooked. The geneticists say they helped lay to rest the rumors that Ata was an alien, thereby giving the dead girl more dignity than she has had since 2003. And further study of the mutations the team discovered may one day help physicians learn how to diagnose and treat a range of genetic bone growth disorders. But no matter what new and useful scientific information comes from this work, there's no denying ethical concerns remain.
“Given the professional ethics I'm bound by, I cannot say that the ends justify the means,” said Killgrove.
Bioarchaeologist Bernardo Arriaza of the University of Antofagasta, who is also part of Halcrow’s group, says that Ata’s case holds lessons for archaeologists and genomics researchers alike. “I think we all learn from this. Journals [need] to be more strict, scholars need to pay more attention that all legal paperwork was undertaken prior to analysis, and countries and their units that deal with protection of their cultural patrimony need to be proactive rather than reactive,” he said. “Many sites are not properly protected.”
A forensic puzzle
According to Arriaza, the relative absence of damage in Ata's DNA means that the mummy’s presence in La Noria might be a forensic problem, not just an archaeological one. “If the case is recent, then it is a legal or forensic case,” he told Ars.
And as Dorador pointed out, if Ata really was interred in La Noria 40 years ago, it happened at least 40 years after the town was abandoned. In the early 20th century, La Noria was a stop on a network of railroads connecting several nitrate mining towns in the Atacama, but the industry had collapsed by the 1930s. The trains stopped coming, and people moved elsewhere to find work, leaving behind a ghost town in the desert.
If she was interred in the 1970s, Ata probably wasn’t from La Noria, but she was possibly laid to rest there by people from somewhere else. Why and how remains unknown. Some reports have said that Ata was buried in the church cemetery at La Noria when she was born, but others claim her remains were found on a shelf in a building near the church. At this point, only the people who interred her and the people who found her can say for sure.
What will happen to Ata?
It’s currently hard to say whether Ata will get to go home, even now that it has been proven that she’s human. Osorio hasn’t given any indication of being willing to part with the mummy voluntarily, so it’s likely to come down to whether he can be legally compelled to do so. No matter what the Chilean inquiry finds, Chile can’t prosecute Osorio or force him to give Ata back, although it can ask the Spanish government to do those things. Both Chile and Spain have ratified a UNESCO convention on import and export of cultural property; it’s not legally binding, but it is a formal agreement between countries to cooperate in cases like this.
Most laws covering antiquities and human remains are hard to enforce once a smuggled skeleton turns up overseas, however. These laws usually rely on catching people in the act of digging up, transporting, or selling materials, and it’s hard to get a conviction—or force the new owners to return the goods—after the deed is done.
“There are big gaps, what I like to think of as the ‘ownership loophole,’ that allow private individuals to legally own and display, on- or off-line, any human remains, even archaeological or Indigenous specimens, that have made it through Customs to them,” archaeologist Damien Huffer of Stockholm University told Ars. Huffer, who's also part of Halcrow’s group, works with several colleagues tracking online human remains collection communities on e-commerce and social media platforms.
“Plenty of high-end folks know to stay off the radar and let unusual specimens come to them. This seems to be one of those cases,” he said.
Ata’s case isn’t the first time mummified remains have been exhumed and smuggled out of Chile, and it probably won’t be the last. Other remains and grave goods have even been taken specifically from the cemetery at La Noria, according to Dorador, and she also cites a 900-year-old mummified infant listed for sale on a site based in the Netherlands.
“I can’t be sure of the likelihood that this will go to trial, but given the outcry from the archaeological community and swift movement from the Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales with their initiation of an inquiry early this week, they may use this very public case to set a precedent,” said Halcrow.
For now, Nolan and his colleagues have repeatedly advocated for Ata’s repatriation.
“We have clearly stated previously that this skeleton should be repatriated and accorded proper respect as human remains, and echo recent demands for its repatriation,” they wrote in their March 30 response in Genome Research.
Repatriation would mean a return to Chile but not necessarily to the lonely cemetery in La Noria. All things considered, returning to La Noria may not be the safest option for Ata—it was obviously not very safe to begin with.
“If the private owner bows to pressure (and displays some conscience) and decides to repatriate, I think the best option is to turn it over to Chilean authorities and place Ata under long-term conservation in a relevant museum,” Huffer told Ars. “She is now too well known to ensure repatriation in an abandoned town would be ‘safe.’ I suspect she would be quickly dug up again and probably sold off, if so.”