The Controversial Study of a Girl Who Ufologists Called ‘Alien’

DNA analysis done on unusual remains found in Chile proved the girl was human, but there has been an uproar over whether the body was acquired ethically.

The mummified remains of a girl
The mummified remains of the girl were found in the Atacama Desert (Bhattacharya S et al. 2018 / Genome Research )

Before the media frenzy, before the documentary about aliens, before her bone fragments were ground up for DNA analysis, she was a girl.

She was tiny when she died. Six inches. Perhaps she was stillborn or died very young. Her body was reportedly found wrapped in cloth with a purple ribbon and buried—with intentionality, it would seem—near a church in La Noria, an abandoned town in the Atacama desert in northern Chile.

As for everything else, well, it went like this. In 2003, a local man who regularly scavenged La Noria for historical trinkets found her body. He noted the unusual conical shape of her head. Almost immediately, photos of her began to circulate, and ufologists eager for evidence of aliens came calling. A businessman bought her body and brought it to Spain. She featured prominently, as the “Atacama humanoid,” in a documentary called Sirius, which alleges, among other things, contact between aliens and ancient civilizations. On screen, the filmmakers are shown cutting her skull open, and removing a rib fragment for DNA analysis.

That DNA analysis was published last week—in Genome Research, a legitimate journal, and authored by a team of legitimate biologists led by Garry Nolan of Stanford University. That Nolan came to work with the makers of an alien-conspiracy documentary is unorthodox, to say the least. But it was an opportunity to study rare mutations that could explain her unusual bones as well as an opportunity to restore to her a small measure of dignity.

The DNA analysis proved what scientists had been saying all along: She is human. She could have died as recently as decades ago based on the preservation of her DNA. In interviews, Nolan told journalists he believed her body should be returned to Chile.

This redemptive scientific narrative took shape, only to be punctured by a sharply 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 “If samples are obtained unethically, any resulting science is not ethical, and as such, should not be published,” she wrote. Then, the gut punch: “Would these authors be happy working on the body of a surreptitiously buried child from Boston, MA or Santa Barbara, CA? Or are the ethics of working on children from less-developed nations less complicated?”

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the Chilean National Monuments Council is investigating whether the girl’s body had been dug up and sold illegally.

There was a time, of course, when the ethics of working on bodies found in old graves were taken as uncomplicated. Artifacts were plundered, graves robbed, bones taken back to Europe where 19th-century researchers analyzed them according to their 19th-century ideas of race. Bodies that did not conform to a European standard—like the elongated skulls of mummies found in Peru—were likened to that of animals. As anthropology and archaeology became professionalized, scholars have seriously grappled with the dehumanizing and unethical practices of the past.

Yet, conspiracies have persisted. The elongated skulls in Peru keep popping up in alien documentaries—even as anthropologists have explained the practice of binding babies’ heads among pre-Columbian Peruvians. The girl in La Noria died only decades ago, and her unusual appearance is likely unrelated. But there is this history of unearthing non-European bodies and proclaiming them to be alien, as Christopher Heaney has written in The Atlantic. Heaney, who is a historian of modern Latin America at Penn State University, says the sale of the girl’s body “relies upon an industry of ufology.”

Nolan at Stanford first heard about the girl when he caught wind of the making of Sirius. He studies immunology, and he had no particular experience with old DNA but he told the New York Times he contacted the filmmakers on a “lark.” (Nolan declined to be interviewed for this story, though he briefly answered a couple questions over email. He wrote in that email “I won’t be doing any more interviews any time soon—very behind on ‘regular’ science of my lab. We’ll have some thoughts to make—but it will not be on a time line 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 about his preliminary findings, “I can say with absolute certainty that it is not a monkey. It is human, or as close to human, closer to human than chimpanzees would be. But when you count up the number of mutations that we are observing, what we’re seeing is more than what we would expect to be caused by simple cell division.”

The rest of the discussion is meandering and technical enough that a nonexpert would come away with doubt. In the film, Nolan also says she has a Y chromosome—a mistake, he acknowledged to me, due to his inexperience with this kind of DNA analysis. (The extra mutations may also be the result of DNA degradation over the decades.) For the paper published this week, Nolan brought on experts in genetics and in paleogenomics to do the DNA analysis. They found some mutations that may explain the shape and hardness of her bones. They determined she was, in fact, a girl, and she was of both indigenous and European ancestry.

None of the paper’s coauthors are archaeologists or anthropologists though. And none of them were Chilean. By Wednesday, the Chilean Association of Archaeologists and the Chilean Society of Biological Anthropology issued statements denouncing the research. The two organizations and 11 other Chilean researchers also signed a letter to the journal that published the study. “The scientific community in Chile is deeply upset and concerned about this situation,” they wrote, adding that studies like this encouraged the looting of archaeological sites. (Full text of the letter below.)

“In the Atacama Desert, unfortunately, ancient sites are often looted. Many are not properly managed or delimited,” Bernardo Arriaza, a Chilean anthropologist who studies mummies in the Atacama Desert, wrote in an email. “It is a tragedy that a mother lost a baby, a miscarriage perhaps, but also a shame that looters got the body and sold it for a couple of dollars.”

For archaeologists and anthropologists, the ethical lapses in the handling of the girl’s body are glaring. “My first reaction as bioarchaeologist is I wasn’t happy. I was a little disgusted,” says Sabrina Agarwal at UC Berkeley. She ticked off the issues: how the girl’s body was found and sold, the lack of local stakeholders, the lack of an ethics statement in the published paper. “It’s part of the darker history of all of bioarchaeology and anthropology. It’s not like we are not part of it,” says Agarwal. “But contemporary bioarchaeologists and anthropologists are very sensitive to how they look at human remains.”

Geneticists have not had this kind of reckoning. 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. Late on Wednesday night, as outside pressure mounted, the University of California at San Francisco sent The Atlantic a statement on behalf of Nolan and his coauthor, Atul Butte, at UCSF, denying the study authors did anything inappropriate. It reads:

We affirm the need to respect the traditions of other cultures in genomic analyses. We have previously stated that we believe the skeletal remains should be returned to the country of origin and, by finding them to be human, this research supports the argument that these remains should be repatriated. This research clarifies what has been a very public and sensationalized story for a long time, and it was done out of a desire to bring some humanity to this discussion and dignity to the skeleton.

The skeleton has never been in the possession of either Stanford or UCSF, and we had nothing to do with removing the skeleton from its place of origin. The DNA and images come from remains that were not known to be human when the research began. It does not provide identifiable information about a living individual, as defined by federal regulations, and does not qualify as human-subjects research, per the Federal Office of Human Research Protections. It has long been known that this skeleton was privately held in Spain, without any allegations of criminal conduct as to how it was acquired.

The authors are also writing a response that will be published in Genome Research.

The publicity from 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 might have begun by engaging local researchers to understand the context in which the girl died. They may have tried to locate surviving family. And the resulting study could have told a story about La Noria and people who lived there. Alan Goodman, a biological anthropologist at Hampshire College, called it a “missed opportunity.”

By neglecting to engage anthropologists and focusing only on the girl’s odd appearance, Heaney suggests the geneticists may have played into the hands of the ufologists: “Part of the game has been getting a larger and larger platform.” Even debunking the alien connection requires repeating it and spreading the legitimately striking image of her body. Since the study was widely covered in international media, Steven Greer, the ufologist who stars in the Sirius documentary, has been tweeting about how he believes the Stanford research is faulty. A spokesperson for him sent The Atlantic a report questioning the results, which she says were written by a California Institue of Technology researcher who wants to remain anonymous.

If anthropologists had been there to tell the story of what her life may have been like, and what her parents’ lives may have been like, then perhaps the narrative would not have focused so much on whether or not she was alien. It would have made her humanity evident.

This is the work Dorador is doing in the piece she wrote for Etilmercurio. She conjures up the streets of La Noria, a service town that sprung up during the heyday of nitrate mining in the Atacama desert. She writes about the heat, the lack of water, the tuberculosis epidemics. She describes the cemeteries where families still come to pay their respects.

There is not much known about the girl, so perhaps it bears repeating the few things that have been reported. When she died, she was wrapped in cloth with a purple ribbon and buried near a church—with intentionality.