As a geneticist, what do you think of the Starchild skull? In case you don't know, this is the 900 year old skull found in Mexico that might be half alien and half human.
-A curious adult from Oregon
April 7, 2010
I have to admit that I had never heard of this until I got your email. So I had to do a bit of investigating. And from what I saw, I'd have to say the jury is still out on whether this skull comes from a half alien/half man. Especially from a genetic point of view.
In fact, I need to be even stronger than that. Right now there is nothing to rule out that the skull simply comes from a child with severe developmental problems. I see no reason to invoke any aliens in explaining this child.
Now this doesn't mean I know what the developmental problem was. I don't. But that isn't the point.
Even if this particular skull shape/texture/etc. has never been seen before, that doesn't mean it couldn't be due to some very rare condition. This is probably more likely than an alien being involved.
What this means is that the researchers need more than they have right now to prove that this child had an alien and a human parent. They need something that says unequivocally that the skull is only partly of this world. And this won't be easy"¦
Alien or Human
Let's start out assuming the skeleton is half alien. What can we do to prove it? What are the sort of dead giveaways that something is alien?
One is if a skeleton is so wildly different looking that it must be an alien. This isn't the case here. And you wouldn't expect it to if it were half human.
Another might be if a skeleton were found where it shouldn't be. If, for example, we found a humanoid skeleton next to some dinosaurs, then we might have to say it was alien. But the skeleton was found in a cave in Mexico and is about 900 years old.
Another might be if the skeleton was found with lots of advanced technology. This skeleton wasn't found with anything you wouldn't expect from 900 years ago.
This pretty much leaves DNA testing. In most alien cases this would be nearly impossible to do as there is no reason for an alien's genetic code to work through DNA. DNA has been great for life here on Earth but there is no reason to think that life elsewhere needs it. Undoubtedly other molecules can work too.
But since the starchild is said to be a hybrid, that means the alien must have contributed DNA in some way. Someone with a single set of chromosomes from one parent would be quickly miscarried"¦he or she could not survive.
How that DNA got there is anyone's guess. As I said it is unlikely the alien had its own DNA. And even if it did, the odds are that it is arranged in such a different way that there would be no way to "naturally" develop such a hybrid.
Perhaps the alien could somehow convert its genetic code into DNA that could then work with the mother's DNA. Or, if the alien did happen to use DNA, then maybe it was advanced enough to rearrange its DNA so that it could work with human DNA. The alien would probably then need to also add back extra copies of human genes where needed. (Having just one copy of most genes results in death.)
Any of this requires a level of sophistication that humans can only dream of right now. But let's say an alien could do these things. Unfortunately, it still would be tricky to use DNA to prove the skull was half alien.
Is It Alien DNA?
I am not sure what we would predict if alien and human DNA were combined to create a hybrid. If the alien merely tinkered with human DNA to get some of its traits into a human, this would be really hard to distinguish from natural variation.
If there were a lot of differences, then you might be able to say something. But then again, you might not. Perhaps the child had more variation than average.
If the alien included some unique genes of its own to the mix, then you might have something. But then again, you might not. If a scientist found a unique piece of DNA, it'd be hard to tell if it came from the skeleton or some contaminating DNA.
Bones found out in the field are covered with bacteria, mold and who knows what else. All of these things have DNA. And together they have way more DNA than is left in the skeleton after 900 years.
So if an unknown piece of DNA is found, did it come from the skeleton or some contaminating bacteria? Hard to know.
Scientists don't know every piece of DNA that exists in the world"¦not by a long shot. The unknown DNA might be alien or simply unknown. Figuring out the difference would be very tricky.
I suppose scientists could put the new gene into some animal like a mouse and see what happens. Perhaps the mouse might gain some new, never before seen trait.
Unfortunately any trait that would be so alien-specific probably needs lots of different genes to be seen. Which means that putting a single alien gene into a mouse might not be that useful.
The best bet is to probably get a complete readout of the DNA in the skeleton. You still may not have an exact answer but you'll have a better idea about what you have. And maybe some idea about what to do next.
The Results Thus Far
Researchers have looked at the DNA in the skull a few times over the past 10 or 11 years with mixed results. One set of studies suggested that human DNA from both mother and father was present. This was done back in 1999 when the techniques for looking at old DNA weren't very well worked out yet.
A second study done in 2003 reported only finding the mother's DNA. Well, actually the researchers could only see the very common mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and not any nuclear DNA from either parent. This result can only tell us that the mother was human but we learn nothing else. The lack of nuclear DNA might just mean there was too little to see.
Recently a molecular biologist has begun to look at the DNA in the skull with the much more powerful techniques available today. And he is beginning to get some information on the nuclear DNA from the skull. Please keep in mind that this work is preliminary and has not been published which means it has not been independently verified.
In a first pass, he has identified two chunks of DNA. One lines up perfectly with human DNA. The other does not line up with any known piece of DNA, human or otherwise.
As I've talked about, on its own this is not enough information to tell us if the skull is human or not. We simply can't rule out contaminating DNA.
So we'll have to wait and see if the researchers can get the money for a complete DNA readout. Then we might know if we have something amazing. Or something that was merely tragic.