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Chilean Government Investigates Whether the Atacama Mummy Was Illegally Exhumed

Outraged at the recent DNA analysis of the child, the Chilean science community calls for ethical evaluations of the work

Researchers have analyzed the DNA of this mummified specimen from Atacama region of Chile. (Bhattacharya S et al. 2018)
smithsonian.com

An unusual, tiny skeleton—previously touted as a possible "alien"—has sparked curiosity since its discovery in Chile in 2003. Last week, scientists finally revealed the story behind the small form based on whole-genome analysis of the remains. Dubbed Ata, the skeleton belong to a girl who was stillborn or died just after birth. She likely had an array of genetic mutations that resulted in her atypical form.

However, the study published in Genome Research has sparked outrage among Chilean scientists who called the research unethical. Now, the Chilean government is questioning the legality of the work, Carl Zimmer reports for The New York Times. According to the government agency Chilean National Monuments Council, the skeleton may have been illegally exhumed and smuggled out of the country. An investigation into the matter is now underway.

As Cristina Dorado, a biologist at the University of Antofagasta, writes on the Chilean science news site Etilmercurio.com, the journey of and speculation about the girl has been “cruel and tragic.” Mummified in the harsh environment of the region, Ata is thought to originally have been found by a man named Óscar Muñoz back in 2003. As Dorado writes, "due to her extremely unusual and irregular appearance, he sold her for the grand sum of 30,000 Chilean pesos (40 euros).” The girl has since appeared in a range of accounts, often referred to as an "alien" or "humanoid." She was even featured in the 2013 U.F.O. documentary, Sirius.

The research began in 2012 when Garry P. Nolan of Stanford University caught wind of the documentary and offered to examine the mummy’s DNA. Her current owner—Barcelona entrepreneur Ramon Navia-Osorio—acquiesced and sent X-ray images and bone marrow samples.

When the results of the analysis were published, the study was widely covered by the news media, including at Smithsonian.com. But since Ata is likely only decades old, her family could still be alive, Dorado writes, "forced to relive events from forty years ago."

Francisca Santana-Sagredo, a biological anthropologist at the University of Antofagasta in the Atacama region and the University of Oxford, tells Zimmer: “It’s offensive for the girl, for her family, and for the heritage of Chile.”​

Dorado also points out the legal concerns about the work. “No attention has been paid to the important ethical issue that a team of leading scientists have undertaken a study on an illegally obtained human infant without legal permission,” she writes.

Dorado writes that the progression of the research ignored Chilean laws regulating the study of such artifacts, pointing out that the journal where the study was published required no statement of ethics. “Like many other countries, human remains and historical objects are protected by law in Chile, including the girl from La Noria,” she writes. Dorado summarizes the relevant Chilean laws: "Simply put, to fulfill legal requirements to conduct the research described, a permit is needed from the National Monument Council."

She also writes that no Chilean researchers were included as part of this collaboration. Such collaborations with knowledgeable researchers could have ensured that the work followed the proper legal pathways.

Nolan and Atul Butte, researcher from the University of California, San Francisco, and co-author of the study, stand by the research. “We had no involvement or knowledge of how the skeleton was originally obtained nor how it was sold or exported to Spain,” Butte tells Zimmer. “We had no reason to suspect in this case that this sample was illegally obtained.”

Nolan also tells Zimmer that they did not check for university permission for the work because of initial suspicions that the subject was a nonhuman primate. He adds that the analysis did not provide "identifiable information about a living individual," Zimmer reports, and thus is not regulated as human subject research under the U.S. Office of Human Research Protections.

This latest outcry is another chapter in the long debate over the ethics surrounding the study of ancient human remains. As Sarah Zhang writes for The Atlantic, archaeologists and anthropologists have long had to reckon with questions about the treatment of human remains. But geneticists have only just started to enter into the fray. "Though they almost certainly will have to face up to this issue as the study of ancient DNA becomes a more and more common tool in anthropology," Zhang notes.

Editor of Genome Research Hilary Sussman tells Zimmer the journal did not have a instructions for researchers to detail any ethical considerations. She adds that the journal will look into the oversight for future issues.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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