From The Editors Science

Mystery of the Atacama Skeleton Solved

Fifteen years ago, in the deserted mining town of La Noria in the Chilean Atacama Desert, a man named Oscar Muñoz found a 6-inch long mummified skeleton, which looked more like the mortal remains of some extraterrestrial life form than anything else, least of all human.

However, a recent study published Thursday in the journal Genome Research has put paid to the alien theory. The findings show that the presumed alien skeleton was, in reality, a female human fetus.

The miniature skeleton, which came to be known as Ata, somehow found its way into the private collection of Spanish businessman Ramón Navia-Osorio.

As tiny as Ata’s skeleton was, it was remarkably well developed, though much too bizarre to be considered human at the time, what with anomalies like an elongated skull; deformities in the face and jaw; disproportionately large eye sockets with an oriental slant to them; and instead of the normal twelve sets of ribs, Ata had ten.

Initially thought to be from an ancient era, the skeleton was actually from as recent as forty years ago as initial tests carried out in 2012 determined.

Ata’s real claim to fame came in 2013 when she appeared in Dr. Steven Greer’s UFO documentary “Sirius.”

Rumors and speculations ran rife following the documentary, with some calling it the remains of a non-human primate, while others were more inclined towards the alien theory – the latter attracting the larger audience – but of course – given our fascination with the famous line, “we are not alone.”

The widespread speculations and the aura of mystery surrounding the tiny creature caught the attention of Gary Nolan, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University and the senior author of the new study, even before the documentary was released.

“I learned about this through a friend who was interested in the entire area of extraterrestrial life,” Nolan wrote in an email, according to CNN’s Ashley Strickland. He told me about a documentary coming out (‘Sirius’ … you can find it on Netflix now) which was to feature the ‘Atacama Humanoid’.”

Speaking on people’s assumption that the skeleton was not from this planet, Nolan told CNN:

“That was a significant claim in and of itself. More shocking though was the picture I was provided that was part of the online publicity. I decided to contact the movie directors (basically on a dare …) to tell them it was possible to do a sequencing of the specimen (if it had earthly DNA …) to determine its origin.”

Nolan and his fellow researchers were convinced from the outset that Ata was not an alien, though they were open to the non-human primate theory, as well as to the possibility of some kind human deformity, or mutation.

What the researchers were interested in, basically, was an explanation of the skeleton’s tininess and the other anomalies cited earlier.

Treating Ata’s skeletal analysis like that of a living patient, Dr. Atul Butte – also a senior author of the study and the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg Distinguished Professor and inaugural Director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences ( at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) – was able to isolate 64 mutations in 7 genes that were collectively responsible for the bone and musculoskeletal deformities, like scoliosis, and skeletal dysplasia, more commonly known as dwarfism.

“There are mutations in many genes, including genes involved with the production of collagen (in our bones and hair), joints, ribs, and arteries,” Butte wrote in an email, according to Strickland. “We know these genes are involved with these processes in human development, but we are still learning what all the other genes in the DNA do.”

Most mutations that Dr. Butte speaks of have been known to be the cause behind growth or developmental disorders, while others had not been previously associated with bone diseases.

What the researchers were not prepared for, though, was the concentration of so many mutations in a single specimen.

What led to that many mutations inside the tiny body of Ata was the million dollar question!

“Many times, genetic diseases are passed on from parents that are carriers. In this case, these mutations are so rare that we haven’t actually ever seen some of these before, so it’s hard to imagine there are carriers out there,” explained Butte.

“We do speculate that the environment where this child was developing might have played a role. The specimen was found in a town with abandoned nitrate mines, and exposure to nitrates might have caused the mutations,” he speculated.

The techniques employed in the Ata research and the findings have the potential to go a long way in the timely diagnoses and treatment of conditions linked to genetic mutations, hopes Butte.

“Many children’s hospitals now see patients or children with unusual syndromes, including those never described before,” he said.

“DNA sequencing is now more commonly used to help us solve these ‘undiagnosed diseases.’ But many times, we tend to search for a single gene mutation that might explain what we see in the patient.

“What this case taught me we that sometimes there might actually be more than one major DNA difference involved in explaining a particularly hard-to-explain patient. We shouldn’t stop a search when we’ve found the first relevant mutation; indeed there might be many others also involved,” Burke added.

Antonio Salas Ellacuriaga – Graduate in Biology and Professor of Medicine at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and a forensic genetics researcher at the Institute of Legal Medicine – says that “DNA autopsies” have the potential to unravel medical mysteries.

With reference to the Ata study, he said it was “a very beautiful example of how genomics can help to disentangle an anthropological and archaeological dilemma.” Dr. Ellacuriaga, by the way, was not part of the new study.

Whatever the study may or may not have accomplished, one good thing that did come out of it is the fact that the alien myth stands busted, at least as of now. Ata was the disease-ravaged fetus of a little girl of indigenous Chilean and European ancestry.

She was as much from this planet as you and me.

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