Atacama skeleton research prompts anger and ethics concerns
The handling of strange 15-centimetre human remains was motivated more by publicity than science, Chilean researchers suggest. Andrew Masterson reports.
A recent paper identifying a much talked-about 15-centimetre skeleton as human has come under fire from other researchers, who allege the treatment of the remains was unethical and an example of “scientific colonialism”.
The paper, published in the journal Genome Research and covered by many outlets around the world, including Cosmos, presented the results of genome analysis of the “Atacama skeleton”, a bizarre-looking miniature humanoid originally discovered in 2003 in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
The discovery caused a sensation, and led to many suggestions among the general public to explain its tiny, dome-headed appearance. Some theories went as far as to claim the remains were evidence of an extraterrestrial being.
In their paper, researchers led by Gary Nolan of Stanford University in the US built on previous work identifying the skeleton as human through DNA analysis. The latest work establishes that the remains are those of a preterm Chilean girl, born with several genetic mutations.
Following the publication of the research, several Chilean scientists raised objections about the way the work was carried out, and the way in which Nolan and his colleagues obtained the Atacama skeleton.
In an article in the Chilean magazine Etilmercurio, researchers led by Nicolás Montalva, president of the Sociedad Chilena de Antropología Biológica, accused Nolan’s team of ignoring Chilean laws governing the handling of human remains and pandering to populism.
“Presumably, they were thinking of the colossal media response to the case, literally making an Alien show out of this apparently tragic story,” Montalva and his colleagues assert.
They move on to place Nolan’s study in the broader ethical field of bioanthropology – areas of research that use human remains as their basic information source.
They acknowledge the benefits and insights that come from the study of the dead, but add the caveat: “ethical and legal protocols when working with human remains are as important as the research itself, and need to be followed strictly”.
In response to the Chilean criticisms, both the journal and the authors have added formal statements to the original paper.
Defending its policies for reviewing work involving human remains, Genome Research editor Hillary Sussman said the journal maintained the highest standards of ethics and responsible peer review.
The Atacama skeleton, she added, technically fell outside the publication’s own guidelines.
“Current human subjects research policies do not typically cover the study of specimens of uncertain biological origins, such as the Atacama skeleton,” she wrote.
“The DNA sample from the Atacama skeleton did not qualify as human subjects research as defined by the [US] Federal Office of Human Research Protections. Thus, neither specific approval nor exemption was required for the study reported in the paper.”
Montalva and colleagues rejected the editorial claim outright, saying that it was simply not credible that the journal did not acknowledge the Atacama skeleton as human.
“That leads us to believe they were either taking the claims of extraterrestrial origin seriously, or more likely, were motivated by potential media attention,” they wrote.
Two of the original authors – Nolan and Atul Butte – added a note to the study, effectively echoing the Chilean scientists’ concerns.
“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 state.