The “Starchild skull”, a real enough skull, is claimed to be physical evidence for a dead alien (or alien/human hybrid) right here on earth. Unfortunately, like so many of these objects that are supposed to derive from elsewhere in the cosmos, it is treated as private property and access to it for testing is tightly controlled. No independent scientific reports on it have ever been published and there are suspicions that data that demonstrates that it is human has been suppressed. Yet it has a very vocal community of supporters who tout it as proof of extraterrestrial contact (or a variety of other equally outlandish claims). The problems with the skull go way beyond simple data collection, analysis and interpretation: there are important ethical issues about the way in which the remains of a child – whether they are human or alien – are being used for commercial gain.
The skull is supposed to have been discovered in the 1930s by an American girl from El Paso (Texas, USA) in an abandoned mine near Copper Canyon in Mexico, about 160 km south-west of Chihuahua. According to its current “owners”, the discovered died in the early 1990s and it did not come into their possession until 1998, so information about its discovery is third hand, at best (it should be obvious that the discoverer cannot have given an account directly to its current “owners” after her death). Nevertheless, it is said to have been discovered with the complete skeleton of an adult that lay exposed on the floor of the mine. The skeleton to which this skull belongs was covered by a small mound of earth, leaving only an arm and hand projecting from it; the child’s hand was clutching the upper arm of the adult. Although the girl tried to recover both skeletons, a flash flood washed away most of the remains and all she could take home were the two skulls.
The skulls were given to Ray and Melanie Young in 1998; Melanie is a neonatal nurse and was convinced that the shape of the child’s skull could not be the result of ordinary human deformities. To try to find out more about it, they approached the author Lloyd Pye, although it is not clear why they sought his assistance in examining the skulls rather than an archaeologist or palaeopathologist. He had published Everything you know is wrong, book 1: human origins in 1997, which promotes the ideas of Zechariah Sitchin about the alien origins of humanity, using tendentiously wrong translations of Sumerian texts as his principal evidence. This makes the choice of Lloyd Pye as someone to research the remains look as if the Youngs had already formed an idea about the nature of the child’s skull. Pye and the Youngs founded The Starchild Project early in 1999, when Lloyd Pye became the “caretaker” of the child’s skull. Since then, all access to the remains has been controlled by Pye who, by 2010, had engaged the services of his own geneticist for reasons that will become apparent. 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”.
The skull of the child is large, with a capacity of 1600 cm3, some 200 cm3 larger than the average human adult, although it falls within the overall range of 1000–1900 cm3. Although claims have been made that it is composed of a material resembling tooth enamel, it is of the standard mammalian bone chemical calcium hydroxyapatite. It contains the usual bones of the skull, together with all the features such as muscle attachments found in humans. However, it exhibits considerable deformities in all of them. For instance, the orbits are unusually shallow and the canal for the optic nerve is closer to the base of the orbit, suggesting a rotational deformity, while the occipital bone at the back of the skull is flattened. There are said to be no frontal sinuses, a condition that affects about ten percent of the population. Analysis of a detached portion of the right maxilla showed unerupted permanent dentition and an age at death of around five to six years has been suggested.
The first DNA test was carried out by the Bureau of Legal Dentistry laboratory of the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) in 1999, which recovered a small quantity of nuclear DNA, which was said to demonstrate that the child was male. This result has now been set aside by Pye, as it is said to have been the result of contamination, although we are not told how the contamination occurred: if the skull as a whole is contaminated, it means that any DNA results from it will be compromised, whether mtDNA or nuDNA (the latter is always more difficult to detect in ancient samples). A second test was carried out in 2003 by Trace Genetics of Davis (California, USA), a commercial company with a singularly unhelpful website (perhaps its takeover by DNAPrint Genomics Inc. in 2005 has something to do with this). According to the report on the examination, “has mtDNA consistent with Native American haplogroup C, as revealed through two independent extractions performed on fragments of parietal bone”. The inability to extract nuclear DNA is unsurprising and the analysts cite a number of factors that could make its sequencing difficult, including evidence “that X-Ray exposure damages and degrades DNA, which may have decreased the quantity and quality of DNA available in the bone prior to extraction”.
In 2010, further DNA analysis was undertaken by the National Institutes of Health BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool) programme, which “compares nucleotide or protein sequences to sequence databases and calculates the statistical significance of matches… to infer functional and evolutionary relationships between sequences as well as help identify members of gene families”. The procedure found that 265 base pairs could be matched, demonstrating “that at least some of the nuclear DNA from the Starchild is from a human being”. What Lloyd Pye is keen to promote, though, is that a sequence of 342 base pairs produced no significant similarities; Pye spins this statement into “there is NO known earthly corollary for what has been analyzed!”, which is not what the report says. He also glosses over the part of the report that explains why no significant similarities have been found, saying that it is merely “an automatically generated list of possible procedural errors designed to help geneticists check all possible flaws in their testing techniques”. It would be helpful to see this!
Further testing was carried out in 2011, which concentrated again on the mtDNA. This time, we are not told the name of the laboratory that carried out the analysis (although we are told that it involved techniques similar to those of the National Institutes of Health’s BLAST programme) or the names of the scientists as “[t]he identity of certain research team members requires temporary anonymity”. This is not helpful, especially when it is appended to an appeal for $7,000,000 as “funding needed to carry out the recovery and sequencing of its entire genome”. Yet another claim was made in 2012. Firstly, an extrapolation of the anonymous 2011 tests made it appear that the child’s mtDNA differs in 977 places from humans, comparing it with the 385 places in Denisovan humans and 1500 places in chimpanzees. The second (“preliminary”) claim is that there are significant differences in the FOXP2 gene (a gene that is believed to be implicated in the development of language skills). According to Pye, there are 56 differences, which mean that this gene is not human, although significant mutations of the gene are reported.
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. This places the two bodies firmly within the Casas Grandes tradition of the later Mogollon culture, which flourished in northern Mexico and the south-western USA in the early second millennium CE. Significantly, skull deformation was widely practised by this culture.
Deformed skulls are a widespread phenomenon in the ancient Americas. The skull of newborn infants consists of bones that are not yet fused (the fontanelle on the top of the head is where the frontal and parietal bones will eventually meet) and can be persuaded to grow into artificial shapes by means of pressing boards against the head and binding. A variety of deformations has been practised; the flattening of the occipital bone visible on the ‘starchild’ skull looks like this type of cultural flattening. However, other aspects of the skull look distinctly pathological: the lack of frontal sinuses, the over-large cranial capacity and the shapes of the orbits.
The DNA tests performed on the skull for Lloyd Pye have shown that it belongs to haplogroup C, a typical Native American type, demonstrating that the child’s mother was beyond doubt a Native American, not an alien. 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. Pye’s insistence that the failure to extract a coherent sequence of nuDNA is evidence that the father was not human is simply not a valid inference. 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 and certainly not evidence for a non-human father. What Pye does not dwell on is the identification of 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. Add to this the deliberate deformation of the skull likely to have been started immediately after birth and it is obvious why the skull should look so odd.
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. Lloyd Pye is not a scientist who is about to bring astounding revelations about alien contact with humans to public attention: he is a writer who already believed this before being given the skull and his promotion of it is nothing short of disgusting.
Aliens in popular culture
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.
Nevertheless, Lloyd Pye continues to promote the skull as evidence for an alien/human hybrid (although he does not appear to specify whether this is an artificial hybrid made by manipulating the DNA of the fertilised egg or the result of inter-species sex). 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, 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!). Abductees have reported seeing hybrids but no infant Greys.
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).
There is nothing in this child’s skull to indicate that it is anything other than the remains of a very sick and very human individual whose parents’ culture encouraged them to flatten the back of its head. This head binding may well have contributed to its early death, but, whatever the precise nature of his pathological condition, the boy was clearly not destined to like to a ripe old age. Despite supporters of the alien hybrid claims saying that the child was in perfect health at the time of its death, a moment’s reflection will show that this cannot be the case: the child died, after all, which is not something that happens to healthy people unless they suffer trauma, for which there is no evidence at all.
This is a very sad object lesson in why we should treat human remains with respect. The bones of dead people are not analogous to artefacts, but are what is left of what was once a person. To use these bones for financial gain and for self-promotion says a lot about Lloyd Pye and his morals.