Experts are now saying that a 2013 paper by Stanford University immunologist Garry Nolan, which examined the Atacama Mummy, was both flawed and unethical. The study examined the mummy and determined that—contrary to rumors—it was not of extraterrestrial origin, and its strange features were the result of genetic mutations.
But the Chilean National Monuments Council quickly suggested that the mummy’s remains might have been obtained through grave robbing and illegal smuggling. Not only that, many scientists suggested the study was inappropriate.
Now, a new paper headed by a led by Sian Halcrow from the University of Otago, New Zealand claims that the research is riddled with misinterpretations and errors, and suggests there is “no evidence” of the skeletal anomalies described in the original paper.
“We are experts in developmental human anatomy and archaeology, and the mummy looks normal for a fetus around 15-16 weeks gestation,” said Kristina Killgrove, a co-author of the new study. “To the average person, I understand how Ata could look odd, but that’s because the average person doesn’t see developing fetuses or mummies.”
“Unfortunately, there was no scientific rationale to undertake genomic analyses of Ata because the skeleton is normal, the identified genetic mutations are possibly coincidental, and none of the genetic mutations are known to be strongly associated with skeletal pathology that would affect the skeleton at this young age,” Halcrow said.
“Given the fact that the mummified fetus was clearly human, the geneticists did not need to do further testing,” Killgrove said. “But more problematic than that was, once they did test and find it was human, they didn’t immediately stop and question the forensic or archaeological ethics.”
“Whether the fetus mummy was ancient or more recent, Chile requires permits for this sort of testing,” she added. “We believe that these geneticists should have involved a specialist in developmental skeletal biology from the beginning as they would not have made rookie mistakes. But we also want to use this as a cautionary tale going forward—genetics experts need to be informed about ancient and modern laws and ethics surrounding testing.”
The original paper was published in Genome Research.