Like many ancient artifacts, the tiny, bizarrely shaped Atacama skeleton was sold to a private collector soon after its 2003 discovery in Chile’s Atacama desert. Six inches long with an elongated head and missing ribs, ‘Ata’ certainly doesn’t exactly look human, but in 2013 scientists confirmed that the skeleton belonged to a human infant girl. In March, a study published in Genome Research acknowledged her humanity but pointed out genetic mutations that made her seem alien, sparking a heated controversy over the study’s apparent breach of scientific ethics and lack of respect of humankind.
In a critical evaluation of the Genome Research analysis, a team of researchers, publishing in the International Journal of Paleopathology on Wednesday, argued that Ata was clearly a human preterm fetus, and as such the battery of genetic tests performed on her — without permission from the Chilean government — and the resulting perpetuation of the “alien” narrative were gross breaches of scientific ethics and human rights. If a skeleton is clearly human, they argue, scientists have no right to poke and prod at it as if it were not.
“Most people have never seen a very young human fetus and have never seen a non-adult mummy, so I understand how Ata could look ‘alien,’” co-author and bio-archeologist Kristina Killgrove, Ph.D. tells Inverse. “But to those of us trained in developmental human biology, it is clearly a mummified fetus. To suggest that a fetus looks other-worldly may seem harmless, but in this case it took away Ata’s humanity, leading to major ethical oversights.”
“It was clearly nonsense from the get-go, but the public loves this crap.”
For Junger, Killgrove, and the rest of their interdisciplinary team, discovering that the Genome Research paper was published without any permits raised red flags about the study as a whole. So, they pored over the data, ultimately finding “no evidence for any of the skeletal anomalies claimed by the authors.”
The skeleton appears typical for a baby that died at a gestational age of 15 weeks, they argue in the new paper, and her elongated cranium is phenotypically normal for a preterm fetus that has been delivered. While there is little information on the formation of ribs in utero, it’s thought that the lower ribs don’t form until the twelfth week of intrauterine life — so it’s very possible that Ata’s last two pairs of ribs just weren’t articulated yet.
Because Ata’s physical form is clearly human, the team argues, there was no scientific reason to analyze her genome. Though the analysis did turn up several mutations, they are described as “potentially coincidental,” the authors write, noting that none of them are strongly associated with skeletal dysplasia that could affect a fetus of Ata’s age.