Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ketchum and Company, At It Again

Last week a news item made the rounds on the Internet regarding the Paracas skulls, a collection of unusually elongated skulls discovered in Peru in 1928. The skulls are something of a scientific curiosity due to both their shape and size. In some ancient cultures elongated skulls were produced by binding the head from early childhood, but the Paracas skulls are larger in volume and weight than normal human skulls and likely could not have been produced by binding alone. One possibility is binding combined with a condition such as hydrocephalus, which is known to enlarge the skull if untreated.

Obviously, obtaining the genetic code from these skulls would provide some insight into whether or not the size of the skulls might be due to some underlying medical condition. Unfortunately, the first group to look into DNA from the skulls includes Dr. Melba Ketchum, one of the founders of the De Novo Scientific Journal, a sham publication apparently created to showcase her work on sequencing Bigfoot DNA. You know, the same DNA that an independent, reputable geneticist identifed as possum. Now DeNovo has never published another article, so I imagine that a paper on the Paracas skulls would be welcome.

What the group apparently discovered is that the Paracas skulls contain mitochondrial DNA that identify them as an entirely new sort of human, distinct from modern humans, Neanderthals, and the recently identified Denisovans. The problem is that team involved has so many credibility issues it's hard to accept those findings. While Ketchum is not the only geneticist involved, it's a mystery to me why anyone would work with her at all. Conflating Bigfoot and possum is a pretty serious error - unless, I suppose, the sasquatch turns out to be a half-ape, half-possum horror straight out of a B-movie.

Samples of these skulls (hair, including roots, tooth, bone and skin) housed at the Paracas History Museum were taken. Here’s the kicker… they were sent, not to a reputable scientist or geneticist, but to Lloyd Pye (now deceased), founder of the Starchild Project who believed in alien hybrids. Guess who he gave them to for testing? (This is rich.) Our favorite Nobel-wishing genetic tester, friend of the forest people, Dr. Melba Ketchum. Ketchum has made our feature posts as the orchestrator of the Bigfoot DNA testing boondoggle. In February of 2013, she self-published a paper (after it was rejected by mainstream journals) that her collection of supposed Bigfoot genetic samples showed the North American Sasquatch was a hybrid of an unknown ape and a human mother. The findings were roundly rejected. See the chronicles of Ketchum here.

She had hinted in the past she was working on elongate skulls. A few of our readers were able to flesh out this story.

Here is what was posted by Brien Foerster, the lead researcher, from the person who did the genetic testing:

"It had mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) with mutations unknown in any human, primate, or animal known so far. But a few fragments I was able to sequence from this sample indicate that if these mutations will hold we are dealing with a new human-like creature, very distant from Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans."

The “geneticist”, unnamed in this piece, gushes about how the findings are at odds with the evolutionary tree as we know it. Hmm. Where is the paper? This kind of “groundbreaking” stuff gives soundly skeptical folks serious pause. It sounds like woo and it’s been making the rounds on such mystery-mongering outlets. It didn’t appear in any scientific context AT ALL. [Giant red flags go up.]

The case probably merits further study, but by reputable scientists, not these clowns. A real paper with accurate genetic analysis showing the mutations in question would almost certainly be picked up by a real journal rather than an outfit like DeNovo. In fact, it's possible that the mitochondrial DNA from these skulls could be unusual. Mitochondrial DNA is only transmitted via the maternal line, so if a mother only gives birth to sons, her mitochondrial DNA will not be passed on to her grandchildren.

There's a lot of additional work that needs to be done here before we decide that we've discovered a new evolutionary branch of the human species. First off, we need to recheck the samples - because I would hate to have them turn out to be possum, or, since the skulls are from Peru, maybe guinea pig. Next, an independent group should replicate the test to make sure no errors were made. Finally, the full genetic sequence should be checked for medical conditions such as hydrocephalus.

It's not completely inconceivable that we might be looking at something new or at least different. Neanderthals had larger cranial volume than modern humans along with heavier bones, and we don't know enough about Denisovans to say for sure how they would stack up. One new species of human, the "hobbit," was discovered on an island in Indonesia in 2003, and it is believed that the west coast of South America was populated from across the Pacific Ocean. For now, though, we need to rule out other possibilities, and this group is a long way from doing so just yet.

Gordon has more in his usual style, with some additional speculations. He's sympathetic to the idea, but agrees that more research is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

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