Author of the Month

The Starchild is out of this World (cont.)
By Lloyd Pye

2003. The Holy Grail of biological testing, DNA analysis, was carried out by Trace Genetics in the summer of 2003 using equipment at the University of California at Davis. Researchers Jason Eshleman and Ripan Malhi found that burial in a mine tunnel for 900 years was like preserving both skulls in a climate-controlled storage locker. The human skull produced an easy recovery of its mitochondrial DNA, showing it was from a common haplogroup for Mesoamericans, haplogroup A. Its nuclear DNA was also recovered easily, showing it was a female. One down, one to go.

The Starchild's mitochondrial DNA—inherited from and passed along only the female line—was recovered as easily as its companion's, and proved to be of a separate Mesoamerican haplogroup, haplogroup C. This meant that even though their relationship was such that the female appeared to bury the Starchild and then laid down beside it to die (most likely by suicide), they were not, as we had assumed, a mother and child. That left us with only the definitive test to complete: What about the Starchild's nuclear DNA, which would reveal the genetic heritage of both of its parents?

Right out of the box there was a problem. Relative to a normal human, the Starchild's bone had proved extremely difficult to cut, even though it was half as thick and half as heavy as normal human bone. Then, when Jason and Ripan put it into normal solvents for dissolving human bone, it resisted those routine attempts to break it down. Ultimately, a very powerful solvent had to be administered to get the bone into a condition to be tested, after which six attempts brought no recovery at all—not even a trace of nuclear DNA.


How could that be? In the first place, if the Starchild's bone was from a normal human, normal solvents should have easily dissolved it. Secondly, after 900 years in optimum preservation conditions, the small degree of degradation in the bone should have made it easy to recover its nuclear DNA, as was the case with the female's. And why was it that only the Starchild's nuclear DNA resisted recovery, not its mitochondrial DNA?

There was only one plausible answer: something was "wrong" with its father's DNA. Somehow Dad's contribution to the Starchild's genetic package had produced a genome that would not respond to the chemical primers used to recover segments of human nuclear DNA.

What could be done about this frustrating technical stalemate? According to Jason and Ripan, nothing, at least not in the short term. They told me that in 3 to 5 years they expected the headlong rush of their field's technical improvements to create an atmosphere in which problems like ours with the Starchild would be resolved. So what, I asked them, could I do now? "Get the bone's biochemistry tested," they told me. They wanted an explanation for why it had been so difficult to cut when they removed their samples.

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