The March 10 episode of my Skeptoid podcast dealt with a number of strange skulls from around the world. One that’s perhaps best known among the strange skull aficionado crowd – if there is such a crowd – is the “Starchild”. It’s the partial skull of a hydrocephalic child who died in Mexico about 900 years ago. At least, that’s what it is according to nearly every knowledgeable person who has seen it. But according to Lloyd Pye, it’s an alien hybrid.
Pye even had a DNA test done on the skull, which confirmed that it was boringly human (read the complete analysis here):
The sample taken from the Starchild Skull (SCS-1) has mtDNA consistent with Native American haplogroup C, as revealed through two independent extractions performed on fragments of parietal bone.
So I got an email from Mr. Pye after the episode came out, and it was clear that he disagrees with my conclusions, to put it mildly. His email was quite lengthy, and I won’t attempt to reproduce the whole thing. He did make a few valid points, and a lot of invalid ones. For example, I mentioned that the skull had been found in a cave:
A MINE TUNNEL, NOT A CAVE. WE’VE BEEN CLEAR ABOUT THAT FACT FROM DAY ONE. THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR THIS MISTAKE BY NOVELLA OR ANYONE ELSE.
Whether you call a tunnel a cave, or a cave a tunnel, is hardly the salient point here, wouldn’t you agree? Is this really what proves the skeptics wrong? Maybe something to discuss over dinner tonight. Or supper.
And, by the way, I’m not Steve Novella. But since I originally misspelled Lloyd’s last name “Pie”, which is indeed a pretty lame error on my part (or on the part of my spellchecker), I’ll excuse this mistake of his.
I also mentioned that the skull is that of a child who was about five years old:
TOTALLY WRONG. THIS IS WHAT WE WERE TOLD BY THE FIRST SPECIALISTS TO ANALYZE IT, SO IT’S WHAT WE REPORTED in 1999. BUT NOT LONG AFTER, FOLLOWING MORE THOROUGH INVESTIGATION BY MORE KNOWLEGEABLE EXPERTS, WE FOUND THERE WAS NO WAY TO DETERMINE ITS AGE AT DEATH, OTHER THAN IT WAS CERTAINLY WELL BEYOND FIVE YEARS OLD.
If you are claiming expertise on skulls, then you should know that it’s quite easy to determine the age of a child from its skull, most obviously by the sutures between the various skull bones. If Pye’s “more knowledgeable experts” were unaware of this, he may need new experts.
TOOTH WEAR, TOOTH ROOT ANALYSIS, AND COMPLETE SUTURING INDICATE THAT THE STARCHILD DIED WELL BEYOND THE AGE OF FIVE.
OK, that’s worth looking at. So I went to Pye’s web site for more information about this. Here’s is what Pye’s expert, a Dr. Ted Robinson, has to say on that matter:
Dr David Hodges, a radiologist, stated that the suture lines were open and growing at the time of death. Dr. David Sweet was of the opinion that the skull was that of a 5-6 year old, based upon the dentition in the right maxillary fragment. Though some specialists who looked at the skull disagreed, I have always supported Dr. Sweet in his belief that this was the skull of a 5-6 year old child.
To me, this does not seem to support Pye’s statement of the child’s age, but I welcome any correction to my understanding. My personal recommendation to Pye would be to drop this line of argument, since even his own experts disagree with him.
But anyway, the child’s age is not really the issue here. Exactly what disease or abnormality the child may have been afflicted with is not even at issue (Pye and Robinson both point out problems with the hydrocephaly diagnosis: Most experts seem to agree with it, but there are certainly other possibilities). What’s at issue is Pye’s claim that the skull is an alien hybrid.
So I told him great, present the evidence of this you found compelling, and I’ll help you win Randi’s million dollars. Well, first he pointed me again to his DNA analysis
WHICH PROVED IT IS MOST LIKELY A HUMAN-ALIEN HYBRID.
and, again, sorry but I found no such conclusion in the analysis; see the link to it above if you think you can find something in there that I missed. A number of the attempts to get results from the sample were not successful, as is common in DNA analysis, especially with older samples like this skull. Pye said:
THAT SECOND, FAR MORE ACCURATE TEST SHOWED THE STARCHILD HAD A HUMAN MOTHER AND A NON-HUMAN FATHER BECAUSE ITS MITOCHONDRIAL DNA WAS EASILY RECOVERED ON THE FIRST ATTEMPT, INDICATING VERY LITTLE IF ANY DEGRADATION OF THE BONE (WHICH COULD BE EXPECTED WITH BURIAL IN A MINE TUNNEL). MEANWHILE, SIX ATTEMPTS TO RECOVER THE NUCLEAR DNA FAILED. IN 2003 WE COULD NOT PROVE THE FATHER WAS ALIEN, ONLY THAT HE WASN’T A NORMAL HUMAN THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN RECOVERABLE ALONG WITH A PROVEN HUMAN MOTHER.
Actually, this does not indicate that the father was “not a normal human.” What the analysis actually says is:
Single amplifications for fragments containing the diagnostic mutations for Native American haplogroups A, B, C and D did not reveal a known Native American haplogroup, however, the extraction did not amplify consistently. A single amplification of a fragment of the mtDNA first hypervariable segment (HVSI) between np 16210 and np 16328 was sequenced using a cycle sequencing procedure with ABI Big-Dye 3.1 chemistry and analyzed on an ABI automated genetic analyzer. The sequence obtained revealed a transition relative to the Cambridge reference sequence at np16273. This sequence did not match either any personnel with access to the ancient DNA facilities or a sequence obtained from Mr. Pye. Subsequent amplifications of this fragment were not successful and the sequence could not be confirmed. Attempts to amplify fragments of the amelogenin gene located on the X and Y chromosome were uniformly not successful.
“We couldn’t get consistent results from the sample” does not mean “the father was not a normal human”. But Pye has one more tool up his sleeve:
The make-or-break test of the Starchild’s viability is an expansive (3-4 months long) and very expensive ($250,000) DNA test that will reveal most of the Starchild’s genome, more than enough to say where it falls against humans, chimps, gorillas, and soon Neanderthals. I don’t think you or Randi are going to front that money for a test.
Pye is correct that I do not intend to personally finance any future delusional explorations, and he is correct that James Randi does not pay the expenses of everyone who wishes to mount a challenge to win the million dollars. I smelled a common charge by promoters of the paranormal, that it is irresponsible for skeptics to not volunteer to bear the burden of disproving every random implausible claim that comes in over the transom. I blew my nose this morning, and the product that came out is alien in origin. You should pay $250,000 to have it analyzed. If you don’t, you’re not a good skeptic.
But anyway, Pye’s “Starchild” project gave Skeptoid material for part of a week, and in thanks I’ll let Pye express what he really wanted to say. These are a couple more paragraphs from his email to me:
OVER THE COURSE OF THIS CAMPAIGN I HAVE BEEN AMAZED BY THE INCREDIBLE FEAR STRUCK INTO THE HEARTS OF ALL KINDS OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCHERS BY THE PEER PRESSURE OF COLLEAGUES, AND OF COMING UNDER THE SCRUTINY OF “DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH” LIKE YOU. YOU AND YOUR “SKEPTIC” ILK ARE NO DIFFERENT IN YOUR OWN WAY THAN THE INQUISITORS OF BYGONE RELIGION. THE GARBAGE YOU ALL SPEW KEEPS REAL SCIENCE FROM MOVING FORWARD IN ANYTHING BUT TINY STEPS THAT EVERYONE CAN TOLERATE AT THE SAME TIME. UNFAIR AND RELENTLESS CRITICISM OF NOVEL, AGGRESSIVE RESEARCH KEEPS EVERYONE LOOKING DOWN AT THE GROUND, ONLY MAKING SURE THE NEXT STEP FORWARD IS SAFE AND SECURE, INSTEAD OF LIFTING EYES TO THE FAR HORIZON TO SEE WHAT MIGHT BE ACHIEVED WITH A SINGLE BOLD STRIDE FORWARD.
I DO UNDERSTAND HOW THIS WORKS. YOU AND I ARE ON DIFFERENT TEAMS, IN A WAY, TEAMS LOCKED IN A STRUGGLE TO HAVE OUR VIEWS PREVAIL. WE BOTH WANT TO “WIN,” AS IT WERE, TO HAVE OUR VIEWS BE THE ONES THAT OTHER PEOPLE BELIEVE ALONG WITH US. THERE IS NO WAY YOU CAN GIVE CREDENCE TO THE THINGS I SAY, NOR CAN I ALLOW YOU TO PUT OUT SUCH TRIPE ABOUT ME AND MY WORK WITHOUT AT LEAST ATTEMPTING TO SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT. YOU HANDLE IT YOUR WAY, I’LL HANDLE IT MINE.
LET ME CONCLUDE BY POINTING OUT ANOTHER EGREGIOUS ERROR IN YOUR DISCUSSION OF THE FAMOUS “CONEHEAD” SKULLS OF PERU. HUNDREDS OF THEM ARE HELD IN VARIOUS MUSEUMS IN PERU AND AROUND THE WORLD, AND YET YOUR SIMPLISTIC ANSWER IS THAT EVERY ONE OF THEM CAN BE EXPLAINED BY THE COMMON PRACTICE OF HEADBINDING. YOU UTTERLY FAIL TO MENTION THAT THESE UNIQUE SKULLS HAVE BRAIN CAPACITIES THAT ARE ON AVERAGE TWICE AS LARGE AS NORMAL HUMAN BEINGS (HUMANS AVERAGE 1400 CC WHILE CONEHEADS AVERAGE BETWEEN 2800 AND 3000 CC). THUS, YOU LEAVE OUT THE MOST CRITICAL DIFFERENCE BECAUSE THE ACT OF HEADBINDING DOES NOT, AND NEVER CAN, EXPAND BRAIN CAPACITY OF HUMANS, CERTAINLY NOT MORE THAN DOUBLE SUCH CAPACITY. IN SHORT, YOU TOTALLY IGNORE THE KEY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM AND HUMANS, MAKING IT SEEM LIKE ANYONE IS STUPID FOR SUGGESTING THE CONEHEADS MIGHT IN ANY WAY BE UNUSUAL.
THEY DEFINITELY ARE UNUSUAL, AND I HAVE BEEN SAYING FOR TEN YEARS THAT THEY COULD PROVE TO BE AS UNIQUE AS THE STARCHILD SKULL. YET IN THOSE TEN YEARS I AM UNAWARE OF A SINGLE CERTIFIED SCIENTIST OF ANY STRIPE HAVING THE NERVE TO BUCK THE ESTABLISHMENT AND CALL FOR THE GENETIC ANALYSIS OF A CONEHEAD SKULL. THIS, IN MY OPINION, IS ANOTHER IN THE LONG LINE OF TRAVESTIES PERPETRATED BY THE COWARDLY GROUP YOU SUPPORT AND KEEP IN LINE.
IF YOU TRULY WERE A SKEPTIC, YOU’D QUESTION WHY A DNA ANALYSIS OF THE CONEHEADS HASN’T BEEN ATTEMPTED, OR IF IT HAS, WHAT WERE THE RESULTS? I SUSPECT THAT’S AN ANSWER YOU WANT TO AVOID EVERY BIT AS MUCH AS YOU WANT TO AVOID WHAT THE STARCHILD SKULL MIGHT BE.
My Kleenex is still sitting there; WHY HAS NO DNA ANALYSIS BEEN ATTEMPTED??? It’s a conspiracy against science!