DNA proves that “Alien” was in fact a human girl – who was she?
Before the media frenzy, before the alien documentary, before her bone fragments were crushed for DNA analysis, she was a girl.
She was little when she died. Six inches. Perhaps she was stillborn or died very young. His body was reportedly found wrapped in cloth with purple ribbon and buried – intentionally, it seems – near a church in La Noria, an abandoned town in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.
As for everything else, well, it was like that. In 2003, a local man who regularly collected La Noria in search of historical trinkets found his body. He noticed the unusual conical shape of its head. Almost immediately, photos of her started circulating and ufologists eager for evidence from aliens came to call her. A businessman bought his body and brought it to Spain. She featured prominently, as “Atacama Humanoid,” in a documentary titled Sirius, which alleges, among other things, contacts between extraterrestrials and ancient civilizations. Onscreen, the filmmakers are shown slicing open her skull and removing a fragment of rib for DNA analysis.
This DNA analysis was published last week-in Genome research, a legitimate journal, and edited by a team of legitimate biologists led by Garry Nolan of Stanford University. That Nolan came to work with the directors on a documentary about the alien plot is unorthodox to say the least. But it was an opportunity to study rare mutations that could explain his unusual bones as well as an opportunity to give him back a little measure of dignity.
DNA analysis has proven what scientists have been saying all along: She is human. She could have died just decades ago due to the preservation of her DNA. In interviews, Nolan told reporters he believes his body should be returned to Chile.
This redemptive scientific narrative took shape, to be punctuated by a very critical editorial in Etilmercurio, a Chilean science website. Cristina Dorador condemned the DNA analysis as unethical given the origins of the girl’s body. “If samples are obtained unethically, any resulting science is unethical and, as such, should not be published,” she wrote. Then, the punch: “Would these authors be happy to work on the body of a child surreptitiously buried in Boston, MA or Santa Barbara, CA?” Or are the ethics of working with children in less developed countries less complicated? “
Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the Chilean Council of National Monuments is investigating whether the girl’s body was unearthed and illegally sold.
There was a time, of course, when the ethics of working with bodies found in old graves were considered straightforward. Artifacts have been looted, graves looted, bones brought back to Europe where 19th century researchers analyzed them according to their ideas of race in the 19th century. Bodies that did not conform to a European standard, such as the elongated skulls of mummies found in Peru, were assimilated to those of animals. As anthropology and archeology professionalized, researchers seriously tackled the dehumanizing and unethical practices of the past.
Yet the plots persisted. The elongated skulls in Peru continue to appear in extraterrestrial documentaries, although anthropologists have explained the practice of tying the heads of babies among pre-Columbian Peruvians. La Noria’s daughter died only decades ago, and her unusual appearance is likely unrelated. But there is this story of digging up non-European bodies and proclaiming them foreign, as Christopher Heaney wrote in Atlantic. Heaney, a modern Latin American historian at Penn State University, says the sale of the girl’s body “hinges on an ufology industry.”
Nolan at Stanford first heard about the girl when he heard about the filming of Sirius. He studies immunology, and he had no special experience with ancient DNA, but he said to New York Times he contacted the filmmakers on a “lark”. (Nolan declined to be interviewed for this story, although he briefly answered a few questions via email. He wrote in the email: “I won’t be doing any more interviews anytime soon, very late. on the “regular” science of my laboratory. We will have some thoughts to do, but it will not be on a schedule that meets your deadlines given our other commitments. “) He agreed to do the DNA analysis if the filmmakers presented his findings in their documentary.
In the documentary, Nolan says of his preliminary findings: âI can say with absolute certainty that this is not an ape. He is human, or as close to human, closer to human than chimpanzees would be. But when you count the number of mutations we see, what we see is more than what we would expect from simple cell division.
The rest of the discussion is winding and technical enough that a non-expert leaves with doubt. In the movie, Nolan also says she has a Y chromosome, a mistake he admitted to me due to her inexperience with this type of DNA analysis. (The additional mutations can also be the result of DNA degradation over decades.) For the article published this week, Nolan brought in experts in genetics and paleogenomics to perform the analysis of the DNA. They found mutations that could explain the shape and hardness of his bones. They determined that she was, in fact, a girl, and that she was of both Indigenous and European ancestry.
However, none of the co-authors of the article are archaeologists or anthropologists. And none of them were Chilean. By Wednesday, the Chilean Association of Archaeologists and the Chilean Society of Biological Anthropology published statements denouncing the research. The two organizations and 11 other Chilean researchers also signed a letter to the journal that published the study. âThe Chilean scientific community is deeply upset and concerned about this situation,â they wrote, adding that studies like this encouraged the looting of archaeological sites. (Full text of letter below.)
âIn the Atacama Desert, unfortunately, ancient sites are often looted. Many are not properly managed or demarcated, âwrote Bernardo Arriaza, a Chilean anthropologist who studies mummies in the Atacama Desert, in an email. “It is a tragedy that a mother lost a baby, possibly a miscarriage, but also a shame that looters recovered the body and sold it for a few dollars.”
For archaeologists and anthropologists, the ethical shortcomings in the handling of the girl’s body are glaring. âMy first reaction as a bioarchaeologist was that I was not happy. I was a little squeamish, âsays Sabrina Agarwal of UC Berkeley. She ticked off the issues: how the girl’s body was found and sold, the lack of local actors, the lack of an ethics statement in the published document. âIt’s part of the darkest history in all of bioarcheology and anthropology. It’s not like we’re not part of it, âsays Agarwal. “But contemporary bioarchaeologists and anthropologists are very sensitive to the way they look at human remains.”
Geneticists did not have that kind of calculation. Although they almost certainly have to face this problem as the study of ancient DNA becomes more of a question. and more common tool in anthropology. Late Wednesday night, as outside pressure mounted, the University of California, San Francisco sent Atlantic a statement on behalf of Nolan and his co-author, Atul Butte, to UCSF, denying that the study’s authors did anything inappropriate. It reads:
We affirm the need to respect the traditions of other cultures in genomic analyzes. We have previously stated that we believe the bone remains should be returned to the country of origin and, by finding them human, this research supports the argument that these remains should be repatriated. This research clarifies what has been a very public and sensational story for a long time, and it was done out of a desire to bring some humanity to this discussion and some dignity to the skeleton.
The skeleton was never in the possession of Stanford or UCSF, and we have nothing to do with the removal of the skeleton from its place of origin. The DNA and images come from remains that were not known to be humans when research began. It does not provide identifiable information about a living individual, as defined by federal regulations, and does not constitute research on human subjects, according to the Federal Office for the Protection of Human Research. It has long been known that this skeleton was held privately in Spain, with no allegations of criminal conduct as to how it was acquired.
The authors are also drafting a response which will be published in Genome research.
Advertising of the DNA analysis may ultimately provide the push to repatriate the girl’s remains. But bioarchaeologists and anthropologists said they would have done this study differently from the start. An anthropologist could have started by hiring local researchers to understand the context in which the girl died. They may have tried to locate the surviving family. And the resulting study could have told a story about La Noria and the people who lived there. Alan Goodman, a biological anthropologist at Hampshire College, called it a âmissed opportunityâ.
By neglecting to hire anthropologists and focusing only on the girl’s odd appearance, Heaney suggests that geneticists may have played into the game of ufologists: âPart of the game was getting a platform. bigger and bigger. Even debunking the alien connection requires repeating it and spreading the legitimately vivid image of one’s body. Since the study was widely covered by international media, Steven Greer, the ufologist who stars in the documentary Sirius, has tweeted about how he thinks Stanford’s research is flawed. A spokesperson for him sent Atlantic a report questioning the findings, which she says were written by a California Institute of Technology researcher who wishes to remain anonymous.
If anthropologists had been there to tell the story of her life and that of her parents, then maybe the tale wouldn’t have focused so much on whether or not she was an alien. It would have made his humanity evident.
This is the work Dorador does in the article she wrote for Etilmercurio. It evokes the streets of La Noria, a city of service that emerged during the heyday of nitrate mining in the Atacama Desert. She writes about the heat, the lack of water, the epidemics of tuberculosis. She describes the cemeteries where families still come to pay homage.
Not much is known about the girl, so maybe it’s worth repeating the few things that have been reported. When she died, she was wrapped in a cloth with a purple ribbon and buried near a church – with intention.