Study of Atacama Skeleton Slammed as Scientifically Flawed and Unethical
University of Otago-led international collaborative research calls into question the ethics of skeletal and genomic analysis surrounding research into the much publicized "Atacama mummy."
University of Otago bioarchaeologist Associate Professor Sian Halcrow led an international research team focusing on the very small mummified body, whose findings are published today in the International Journal of Paleopathology. The team evaluated work carried out on the body by Stanford University researchers, which was published in Genome Research earlier this year.
The mummy in question was discovered more than a decade ago in an abandoned town in the Atacama Desert of Chile and nicknamed "Ata." In analyzing this tiny mummified body, the Stanford researchers concluded genetic abnormalities could explain perceived abnormal characteristics of the skeleton, which was only 15cm (6 in) long.
However, Associate Professor Halcrow and her peers from Universities in the United States, Sweden and Chile, have highlighted a number of concerns about the ethics, skeletal and genomic analysis around the research.
The tiny partly mumified skeleton of Ata. ( Dr Emery Smith )
A Cross Discipline Approach
As experts in human anatomy and skeletal development, the Otago-led research team found no evidence for any of the skeletal anomalies reported by the Stanford researchers. All the abnormal characteristics cited by the Stanford researchers are part of normal skeletal development of a fetus, the Otago-led research team say.
"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," Associate Professor Halcrow says.
The situation highlights the need for an interdisciplinary research approach for a case study such as "Ata," she says.
"This case study allows us to showcase how drawing together multiple experts in osteology, medicine, archaeology, history and genetics is essential for accurate scientific interpretations and for considering the ethical implications of genomic analysis.
"A nuanced understanding of skeletal biological processes and cultural context is essential for accurate scientific interpretation and for acting as a check on the ethics and legality of such research."
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Mummified specimen from the Atacama region of Chile. Frontal view of the skull of the Ata specimen. (Image: E. Smith )
Co-author Bernardo Arriaza, a bioarchaeologist from the University of Tarapacá in Chile, says it is crucial to consider the archaeological content in addition to an interdisciplinary approach. It is important to remember the situation is a pregnancy loss possibly from the very recent past.
"This mummy reflects a sad loss for a mother in the Atacama Desert," Dr Arriaza says.
An Ethical Concern
The Otago-led research team also highlighted concerns around archaeological legislation and the ethics of carrying out research with no ethical consents, nor archaeological permits cited by the Stanford researchers.
"We caution DNA researchers about getting involved in cases that lack clear context and legality, or where the remains have resided in private collections. In the case of Ata, costly and time-consuming scientific testing using whole genome techniques was unnecessary," Associate Professor Halcrow says.
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All studies prove the skeleton to be of a miscarried child.(Youtube Screenshot)
Associate Professor Halcrow is also disappointed that she and co-author, Kristina Killgrove, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Department of Anthropology, were unable to submit a response to the article and research in question to Genome Research.
"For the scientific process to advance it is essential to have open debate through peer-reviewed journals," Associate Professor Halcrow said.
A Cooperative Response
Genome Research has subsequently issued a statement regarding the research that has been conducted:
“…questions have been asked about the ethical standards that guided the investigation of the skeleton and the subsequent publication of the results (Nolan and Butte 2018).
Genome Research has an established track record of adherence to policies that protect human
subjects in biomedical research. Current human subjects research policies do not typically cover
the study of specimens of uncertain biological origins, such as the Atacama skeleton. The DNA
sample from the Atacama skeleton did not qualify as human subjects research as defined by the
Federal Office of Human Research Protections; thus, neither specific approval nor exemption
was required for the study reported in the paper.
Nevertheless, the concerns about the study expressed by some Chilean scientists, their gov-ernment, and some members of the public must be taken seriously. We also recognize the sensi-
tivities related to the history and acquisition of the sample. The Editors and Publisher of
Genome Research acknowledge that these issues require further discussion and agreement on rules of usage from within and outside the biological research community.”
Top image: Mummified child found in Chile. Source: E. Smith
The article, originally titled ‘Faulty science and ethics cited in DNA analyzes of Atacama mummy,’ was first published on Science Daily.
Source: University of Otago. "Faulty science and ethics cited in DNA analyzes of Atacama mummy." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 July 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180718104811.htm>.
Siân E. Halcrow, Kristina Killgrove, Gwen Robbins Schug, Michael Knapp, Damien Huffer, Bernardo Arriaza, William Jungers, Jennifer Gunter. On engagement with anthropology: A critical evaluation of skeletal and developmental abnormalities in the Atacama preterm baby and issues of forensic and bioarchaeological research ethics. Response to Bhattacharya et al. “Whole-genome sequencing of . International Journal of Paleopathology, 2018; 22: 97 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2018.06.007