A New Zealand scientist has joined criticism of a US analysis of human remains that had become famous for their alien-like appearance.

A skeleton, nicknamed Ata, was discovered more than a decade ago in an abandoned town in the Atacama Desert of Chile, and began drawing headlines after it found a permanent home in Spain.

That owed to its angular, elongated skull and sunken, slanted eye sockets - something the internet predictably suggested could be other-worldly.

Misguided conspiracy theorists went as far as claiming Ata was evidence of a UFO cover-up.


In fact, analysis of the six-inch specimen pointed to a mother's tragedy in the recent past.

The DNA sequencing by Stanford University and University of California researchers found Ata's remains were no older than 40 years and had likely been a fetus that suffered severe genetic mutations.

With a bone composition of a six-year-old, the female was indicated to have had a rare, bone-aging disorder.

Soon after their work was shared in the journal Genome Research in March, it was angrily criticised by Chilean scientists.

One told the New York Times the study was "offensive for the girl, for her family, and for the heritage of Chile".

The Chilean government began investigating whether the remains had been illegally exhumed and smuggled out of the country.

The researchers told the newspaper they had no knowledge of how the skeleton was originally obtained, and didn't check for permission because it had been assumed the subject was a non-human primate.

A new study published today, led by University of Otago bioarchaeologist Associate Professor Sian Halcrow, has further questioned why the work was ever undertaken.

"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.

The situation highlighted the need for an interdisciplinary research approach for a case study such as Ata.

"In the case of Ata, costly and time-consuming scientific testing using whole genome techniques was unnecessary," says University of Otago bioarchaeologist Associate Professor Sian Halcrow. Photo / Supplied

"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," she said.

"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."

Fellow author and bioarchaeologist Dr Bernardo Arriaza, of Chile's University of Tarapaca, said it was crucial to consider the archaeological content in addition to an interdisciplinary approach.

It was also important to remember the situation was a pregnancy loss possibly from the very recent past.

"This mummy reflects a sad loss for a mother in the Atacama Desert," Arriaza said.

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 US 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," Halcrow said.

"In the case of Ata, costly and time-consuming scientific testing using whole genome techniques was unnecessary."

Halcrow was 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.

"We were both told that Genome Research does not publish letters to the editor, only original research papers, despite [the researchers'] later response statement in which they seek to justify the ethics of their analyses," Halcrow said.

"For the scientific process to advance it is essential to have open debate through peer-reviewed journals."