During the winter of 2003, a man looking for tokens and historical artifacts near a nitrate-era ghost town called La Noria in Chile’s Atacama Desert, found a strange skeleton only the size of a pen, wrapped in a pouch tied by a violet ribbon. While the skeleton did have human features, the anatomy of the creature differed in many ways from that of everyday humans.
Since then, the Atacama mummy became the subject of wild rumors and speculation, and of course, many have suggested that the skeleton could have belonged to an extraterrestrial creature. So what could possibly be the truth behind this tiny and mysterious skeleton?
The creature, which has been named Ata, had hard teeth, a long head with an odd bulge on top, large eye sockets, and 10 ribs instead of the usual 12. Also, the prematurely ossified growth plates suggested that the creature had an older age at the time of death than what its size would indicate.
The man, who found the naturally mummified remains of Ata, sold them to a local pub owner for around 64 US dollars (30,000 pesos). Eventually, the mummy ended up in the private collection of Spanish businessman Ramón Navia-Osorio. From that point, Ata disappeared from the public eye, until in 2012 a retired physician and UFO enthusiast named Steven Greer was allowed to examine the skeleton which was then featured in his documentary, Sirius, as “evidence of alien life”.
The film captured the attention of Garry P. Nolan, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Proteomics Center for Systems Immunology at Stanford University, who contacted the production team. Greer provided samples of Ata’s bone marrow to Nolan, who concluded that Ata’s genetic material was from a human, and not from an extraterrestrial being. In fact, the scientific team of Nolan found that Ata was female, and that she was closely related to the local population.
Initially, Ata was thought to live thousands of years ago, but after reconstructing her genome, they found that she probably lived a few decades ago and that she also shared some European ancestry. Moreover, her mitochondrial DNA reveals that her mother was from the west coast of South America, Chile.
Ata’s DNA was subjected to whole-genome sequencing, and the study, published in Genome Research in 2018, identified 54 mutations in Ata, which could explain her small stature, missing ribs, and the advanced age of her bones. The mutations found in Ata’s DNA have been linked to bone disorders, such as skeletal dysplasia, rib anomalies, and dwarfism. The study also suggests that given Ata’s size and the severity of her mutations, she was likely a preterm birth.
However, it’s almost impossible to conclude which of Ata’s genetic mutations caused her appearance, since scientists don’t have any information about Ata’s close relatives. If they had DNA from Ata’s mother or father, for example, they could see which of Ata’s mutations were also present in her parents.
Garry Nolan thinks that someone definitely cared for Ata; this is showcased by how she was carefully laid to her final rest, flat on the ground, wrapped in a leather pouch.
While it’s amazing to see how much information can be gathered from DNA, more research is needed to determine the exact causes of Ata’s bodily features. Now that her origins have been proved to not be extraterrestrial, her remains should be laid to rest once again – this time for good.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5