An “alien mummy” found in Chile’s Atacama desert has been identified as the remains of a human child with an unknown bone disorder.
In 2003, Chilean explorer Osca Munoz found a tiny, mummified skeleton while exploring a ghost town. The mummy was six inches long, the size of a fetus, but with developed bones and teeth. Unlike a typical human fetus, the mummy had 10 ribs instead of 12, a tapered skull, and overlarge eye sockets. The mummy was nicknamed “Ata,” after the desert she was found in, and sold to Spanish collector Ramón Navia-Osorio.
When Ata was featured in the 2012 U.F.O documentary “Sirius,” immunologist Garry Nolan asked the producers and Navia-Osorio if he could look for DNA in the mummy to reconstruct what it might have looked like while alive. Nolan and his colleagues were allowed to use x-ray imaging on the mummy, and to take bone marrow samples from the ribs and leg bones.
Retrieving DNA from the bone marrow, the researchers were able to tell that Ata was a human female. She was closely related to indigenous Chileans, but also had minimal European ancestry, suggesting that she lived after Chile’s colonization in the 1500’s. But they weren’t able to explain her unusual appearance, so they teamed up with computational biologist Atul Butte and his team to examine possible mutations in her genes. They found mutations in the genes that traditionally code for bone growth, including some mutations that have never been documented before.
Studying x-rays of her bones, pediatric radiologist Ralph Lachman determined that many of them are as mature as the bones of a six-year-old. He was not able to match her bone structure to any known bone disorder, further suggesting that Ata’s disorders were previously unknown to science. The team doesn’t know which mutations caused her unusual appearance, as they don’t have any DNA from family members to test against hers. Daniel MacArthur, a Broad Institute geneticist, told the New York Times: “There is no single slam-dunk finding that explains the bizarre appearance of this individual.” But, because of her many mutations, they are fairly certain that she was either stillborn or died soon after birth.
The discovery that Ata was human has stirred up a debate about the difference between archaeology and grave-robbing. Further analysis of Ata’s bones showed that she lived approximately 40 years ago, outside of the purview of traditional archaeology. Munoz said that he found Ata wrapped in cloth, inside of a leather bag, and Nolan and his colleagues believe that Ata was given a ritual burial before being unearthed. “They didn’t just throw it away,” he told National Geographic. “Somebody thought it was important. It was their child.”
And while Nolan started studying the “alien mummy” out of sheer curiosity, he now believes that Ata “should be returned to the country of origin and buried according to the customs of the local people,” according to a quote the scientist gave the New York Times. “I don’t think that people should be trafficking in human bodies and claiming they’re aliens for the sake of monetary advantage.”
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