The “Starchild skull”: palaeopathology meets alien abduction
In 1987, a new image became a cultural icon: the almond-faced alien with shining black eyes that adorned the cover of Whitley Streiber’s Communion, painted by artist Ted Seth Jacobs. From that moment on, virtually every alleged encounter with alien beings reported in the English speaking world involved creatures of this type, commonly referred to as ‘Greys’. This is not the place to delve into the complex world of alien typology, but it is worth noting that Greys seem to be a largely American alien, with other regions reporting predominantly different types of creature (such as the South American preference for dwarves, the European preference for Nordics, all of which suggests a strong cultural component to the phenomenon). However, during the burgeoning of the stories of alien abduction during the 1980s and 1990s, the Grey quickly established itself as the abductor par excellence if only because the majority of abduction accounts come from North America and the USA in particular.
Photographs of Greys and other aliens are notoriously unreliable and easily faked. Many look like models (indeed, many photographs of supposed aliens touted on the web turn out to be stills taken from Hollywood films or television dramas), some are crudely retouched photographs of humans, some are misidentifications of shadows and so on, and at least one shows a dead human pilot horribly burnt following a crash (the wire rims of his spectacles are glearly visible). Photographic evidence, as so often in UFOlogy, is useless. So what other evidence might there be for their presence on earth? Not the fantasies of Erich von Däniken, who has been unable in a career spanning more than forty years, to produce a single artefact of extraterrestrial origin, despite his penchant for ascribing virtually all of humanity’s cultural achievements to assistance given by aliens. Enter the “Starchild skull”, a real enough skull that is claimed to be physical evidence for a dead alien right here on earth.
The skull is supposed to have been discovered in the 1930s by an American girl from El Paso (Texas, USA) in a mine near Copper Canyon in Mexico, about 160 km south-west of Chihuahua. After her death in the 1990s, the skull and an adult’ from the same site were given to Ray and Melanie Young who, with the assistance of Lloyd Pye, founded The Starchild Project in 1999 as Melanie, a neonatal nurse, was convinced that the skull could no be the result of ordinary human deformities. Radiocarbon dating was carried out in 2004 by Beta Analytic of Miami (FLorida, USA), which gave a determination of 900 ± 40 bp, which calibrates to Cal AD 1117 ± 59; an earlier test on the adult skull gave exactly the same result. Over the past eleven years, the Project has promoted the skull, principally to UFO and New Age groups, among which the term “star child” is used to refer to alleged human/alien hybrids or to “the next stage in human evolution”.
Such hybrids have been reported by numerous “alien abductees”, whose (usually hypnotically recovered) accounts of their abductions often refer to the aliens’ obsessive interest in their reproductive organs. Some claim to have undergone frequently painful and disturbing procedures to remove eggs and sperm; some claim to have become pregnant as a result of their treatment and subsequently to have discovered that they are no longer pregnant following a further abduction. There are accounts of abductees being shown humanoid but emotionless children during an abduction and being given impressions that these are their own offspring.
Whatever the objective reality of alien abduction experiences (and it will be no surprise that I suspect it to be a wholly subjective phenomenon), physical evidence for the existence of the aliens themselves would be a powerful support for the veracity of the abductees’ stories. So how well does the “Starchild skull” match the available descriptions of Greys? First, we have to acknowledge that we are evidently dealing with the skull of an infant (based on the eruption of maxillary teeth, it has been estimated that the individual was aged around five or six years old when it died, although if we really are dealing with an alien or even an alien/human hybrid, it is a moot point whether we can use human tooth eruption data to assign an age at death!).
If we assume that the dental data can be used, then we have to recognise that the development of Greys from infancy to adulthood might well involve morphological changes to the shape of the face as subcutaneous fats are redistributed. This is the “puppy fat” that gives human children rounded faces and chubby cheeks that most lose during puberty. The reconstruction shown here – made by those promoting the skull as alien, it should be noted – depicts a child of distinctly human appearance. There are problems, of course, in that we do not have a mandible with which the reconstruct the appearance of the lower part of the face, but it has to be said that the eyes are much too close together, the nose too prominent and the width of the upper part of the head proportionally much greater than would be expected if this is the skull of a genuine Grey alien. We could always argue, of course, that if it is a human/alien hybrid, then human characteristics are dominant in this individual (although this would be a post hoc rationalisation).
Lloyd Pye has had DNA tests performed on the skull in 1999 and 2003; a promised third test in 2009 has not yet been published, if it ever happened. The 2003 extraction of mitochondrial DNA (that inherited from the mother) showed it to belong to haplogroup C, a typical Native American type. Thus, the child’s mother was beyond doubt a Native American, not an alien. Intriguingly, the adult skull recovered with the child’s yielded mtDNA of haplogroup A, another Native American type, but which means that the skull cannot be that of the child’s mother, which would by definition have mtDNA of the same haplogroup. However, the team was unable to extract any nuclear DNA, which Pye insists is evidence that the father was not human, as nuclear DNA was extracted from the adult skull. However, there are greater difficulties in the extraction of nuclear DNA from ancient bone than in the extraction of mitochondrial DNA, so the lack of nuclear DNA from the “Starchild skull’ is not at all mysterious. What Pye does not dwell on are the 1999 DNA test, which identified both X and Y chromosomes, which show that the child was a boy; Y chromosomes can only be inherited from the father (men have an XY chromosome pair, women an XX chromosome pair), so the child’s father must have been as human as his mother.
So why does the skull look so unusual? Although Lloyd Pye quotes doctors who state that it cannot have been a pathological condition, he ignores similar skeletal remains that are clearly the result of hydrocephalus, a condition in which the skull fills with cerebrospinal fluid in and around the brain and which can be fatal. Another condition that can yield similar skeletal pathologies is progeria, in which symptoms resembling premature ageing are caused by a genetic mutation. The scientific evidence shows very clearly that the “Starchild skull” is that of a very sick human boy who probably died from the condition that caused the unusual pathological features of the skull. To promote this unfortunate Native American, whose remains are being displayed for public entertainment, is immoral, does an immense disservice to his memory and is something that under the American NAGPRA legislation is probably illegal.