The Sciences

A Foetal Contribution: How 'Ata' Brought Academic Injustice to Light

That the foetus belonged to a less powerful country goes to show that respect and dignity in death is institutionalised as the concern of the privileged.

Almost two decades ago, a tiny six-inch ‘object’ made a public debut. The form of the object in its simultaneous familiarity and lack of it evoked a visceral response from onlookers. For ufologists, this object bore a close resemblance to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and had to be an alien. For some scientists, the object was subhuman, pending analysis.

The peculiarity and bizarreness, and speculation of alien origins, pulled in a much larger audience than an ordinary curio might have. Thus, the results of a scientific investigation on the object came to be widely reported in newspapers and news portals (including The Wire). The object in question, as it turned out, was a mummified girl foetus who scientists came to name Ata. She would have existed 40 years ago in the Atacama region of Chile.

Ata does not look as one might think she should. With her six-inch frame, elongated cranium, odd-looking bones and mummified body, she looks nothing like a foetus would in a sonogram. And it is her treatment first as the macabre object to be ogled at – and then as an object for scientific exploitation – that has exposed how a privileged group dictates academic and public discourse.

Let’s examine the way Ata’s identification as human came to be reported in the mainstream media and the ways in which underlying tensions relating to power relations in academia were brought to the surface.

The loss of an alien

Most mainstream media publications suggested that the conclusion of the study was that Ata was not alien. Most writeups begin with a tinge of surprise at the negation of the latter as their titles. Some even bemoaned it. One of the most shocking – by NBC News on March 23 – was ‘Weird little Atacama skeleton was just a diseased fetus’.

Several publications carried a similar tone that dehumanised Ata. Their engagement with her brief life did not mention the family that anticipated her arrival and which buried her tiny corpse in white paper with a purple ribbon around it.

Academic reporting bore a more subdued sensationalism, although it did not humanise Ata any more than other reports had. The Stanford Medical Centre, for example, chose to speak of skeletons and specimens and treated Ata as such – rather than as the trafficked dead.

Within academia, scientific analysis came to be questioned as is standard practice. However, the question of ethics created a backlash to the research that questioned the fundamentals of academics. Unlike the mass media and American academics, the Chilean government – along with scientists and archaeologists – had treated Ata as an individual who deserved the same dignity in death as any other.

The impact of privileging

To ensure the dignified treatment of the dead, governments formulate rules and laws. This is particularly necessary when the nature of scientific probing is destructive to the body, as in the case of DNA sampling. By not caring for the source of their data, the scientists are guilty of breaking Chilean law.

Moreover, the lack of a Chilean academic in the research team is a form of academic dominance, whereby the fruits of research are restricted to the country of analysis, with nothing given to the country of origin.

Chilean authorities also asked a larger question: would it be just as easy to study a deformed foetus robbed from a grave if its parents were the wealthy inhabitants of a developed nation? Does Ata’s identity as economically marginalised lend her more easily to institutionalised exhibition and examination? Is it easier for science to believe a Chilean to be less-than-human than an American?

The driving force behind the macabre fascination with Ata is her deformed appearance. In having to reestablish her humanity, both sets of discourse paint dysmorphia and deformity as less-than-human. It is the economically underprivileged who are more prone to risky pregnancies, with children bearing the brunt owing to their hampered access to resources.

Similarly, the drive towards bodily perfection and the ideal body in symmetry is largely pushed for by the economically advantaged. The non-conforming other does not see as many academic resources. So a bioarchaeologist having worked on the remains of more vulnerable people in the past is unlikely to have questioned Ata’s status as a deformed foetus to such a large extent.

The thoughts of academia and the media have not extended to Ata’s family. Of all the people unable to comprehend her unusual appearance, her family would have felt the trauma very differently. With her existence being dated to 40 years ago, Ata is likely to have living family being forced to relive a painful and distressing bereavement. Ata is the commercial dead, a source of money for those who call her an extraterrestrial and even those who study her scientifically. Neither she nor her family are stakeholders in this commercial enterprise.

Ata’s afterlife would indicate that there is very little or no scope for the marginalised to mould debates and discourse in academia and the media. That concern was not directed towards the foetus, and the bereaved mother who bore her is proof that the underprivileged have no voice. That the foetus belonged to a less powerful country goes to show that respect and dignity in death is institutionalised as the concern of the privileged.

The recourse to objectivity and a disregard for ethics strengthens the hegemony of natural sciences over other disciplines. And the reduction of those with genetic anomalies to less-than-human speaks of the low prioritisation of its victims in the larger context.

Ultimately, the principal takeaway from the Ata issue is that power structures in academia and elsewhere do have a very coherent and expansive hold over day-to-day discourse. The only real solution to addressing this skewed scenario lies in ensuring diversity, representation and inclusion in knowledge and discourse production.

In India, the current moves towards the non-implementation of reservations, the denial of scholarships to SC/ST students, the increased privatisation of education and the corresponding withdrawal of funding for students from marginalised groups. The lack of bodies to ensure safe and non-discriminatory workspaces for women and individuals belonging to marginalised groups merely strengthens the hegemony of a few. Without resistance, we will be left all the poorer for it.

While calls for Ata’s immediate reburial have been articulated, she remains either exhibited or stored and deprived of the dignity due her. In her ability to stun, stir powerful debate and raise piercing questions, Ata has seen power. As a foetus from a less developed country, it is fair to say that in most other circumstances, she would not have held sway over contemporary debate the way she does now. That is a part of an injustice that we are miles away from addressing.

Joeeta Pal is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. She works mainly on the archaeology of death. Her interests include the personhood of skeletal remains, death practices and memorialisation.

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