A study published a week ago about an enigmatic, six-inch-long skeleton found near the Atacama Desert is causing serious upset among Chile’s scientists and government officials, who are now claiming the specimen was illegally obtained by grave robbers.
As Carl Zimmer reports in the New York Times, the Chilean National Monuments Council, a government agency, has launched an investigation into the incident, saying the mummy’s remains may have been acquired through grave robbing and illegal smuggling out of the country. Many of Chile’s scientists aren’t happy either, saying Garry Nolan, the lead author of the new study and an immunologist at Stanford University, shouldn’t have conducted his genetic analysis on the skeleton, and that the resulting scientific findings are tarnished.
Nolan’s study caused quite a buzz last week after it showed evidence that Ata, as the mummy is called, was likely a human fetus that suffered from a panoply of genetic mutations, including a disorder that made her bones appear much older than they really are. The paper, published in Genome Research, also showed that the girl was of Chilean ethnic descent. The fetus, with its elongated, pointed head, sunken eyes, and missing ribs, likely developed to the second trimester when it died, probably sometime in the 1940s or 1950s.
The mummy has, admittedly, a very strange, vague, and unsavory backstory. It was acquired in 2003 by a man named Oscar Munoz, who reportedly found the skeleton near a church in the abandoned Chilean town of La Noria. From there it ended up in the collection of one Ramon Navia-Osorio, who lives in Spain. In 2012, a UFOlogist filmmaking crew was given access to the mummy, featuring it in a short documentary that claimed the skeleton was likely of alien origin. This attracted the attention of Nolan, who conducted a pair of studies on the specimen in 2013 and 2018, the most recent of which is now under heavy scrutiny in Chile.
“Could you imagine the same study carried out using the corpse of someone’s miscarried baby in Europe or America?” asked the Chilean Society of Biological Anthropology in a statement. Francisca Santana-Sagredo, an anthropologist from the University of Antofagasta, told the NYT that “It’s offensive for the girl, for her family, and for the heritage of Chile.” The South American country is particularly sensitive to the looting and smuggling of artifacts, including mummies—offenses that are punishable by fines and possible prison terms.
Other scientists quoted by the NYT said that, if the specimen were obtained illegally or unethically, then the resulting science is also unethical. Some Chilean scientists are even urging Genome Research to retract the new paper. Very awkwardly, the publication’s editor, Hilary Sussman, admitted there was a screw-up in how the journal handled this paper, claiming to the NYT that a protocol for discussing ethical issues was absent on account of a “technical error” and that the problem has since been resolved.
Nolan and study co-author Atul Butte told Zimmer they had no reason to believe the mummy was obtained illegally, and that reports about the Ata skeleton were public knowledge in Chile for the better part of 15 years—and without any government action. What’s more, Nolan said it wasn’t immediately obvious that they were even dealing with a human specimen, and that his team didn’t need Stanford University’s permission to study a skeleton that possibly belonged to a nonhuman primate.
It’ll be interesting to see where this story goes from here, and if Chile’s National Monuments Council deems this an example of grave robbing, smuggling, and a willful breach of research ethics on the part of Nolan and Butte.
Update: Gizmodo received this emailed statement from Nolan and Butte:
We affirm the need to respect the traditions of other cultures in genomic analyses. We have previously stated that we believe the skeletal remains should be returned to the country of origin and, by finding them to be human, this research supports the argument that these remains should be repatriated. This research clarifies what has been a very public and sensationalized story for a long time, and it was done out of a desire to bring some humanity to this discussion and dignity to the skeleton.
“The skeleton has never been in the possession of either Stanford or UCSF, and we had nothing to do with removing the skeleton from its place of origin. The DNA and images come from remains that were not known to be human when the research began. It 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. 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.
Gizmodo also received an emailed statement from Genome Research:
Genome Research has an established track record of adherence to policies that protect human subjects in biomedical research. Current human subjects research policies do not typically cover the study of specimens of uncertain biological origins, such as the Atacama skeleton. 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 concerns about the study expressed by some Chilean scientists, their government, and some members of the public must be taken seriously. We also recognize the sensitivities related to the history and acquisition of the sample. The editors and publisher of Genome Research acknowledge that these issues require further discussion and agreement on rules of usage from within and outside the biological research community.
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.