Atacama 'Alien' Skeleton Mystery Revealed With DNA Analysis

The body was in a bag on a shelf in a house next to a church in a small, abandoned nitrate mining town in the Atacama Desert of Chile. It was dry, mummified, largely intact, had the proportions of an adult, and measured only 6 inches long.

But Ata, as the specimen would come to be known, was unlike any other human found before. That's why a team of researchers in California came together to analyze her DNA. The analysis revealed that the person had several mutations that were likely fatal and that explained her otherworldly appearance.

The Atacama skeleton is only about 6 inches long. A DNA analysis revealed that the person had several mutations that were likely fatal and that explained her otherworldly appearance.    © 2013 Sirius Disclosure

A Different Kind of Person

Ata had a tall, pointed head and long limbs with partially fused growth plates. The way the growth plates were fused made it seem as though Ata had lived to 6 or 8 years old, prompting speculation: How is it possible that Ata could live that long with such severe deformities?

One popular theory: Aliens.

"The first thing that people thought was that this was an alien," Garry Nolan, a microbiologist and immunologist at Stanford told Newsweek. "And you can find stories of the little people from all over the world. Everything from leprechauns to fairies to aliens."

Nolan doesn't want to mock people who think of supernatural explanations for Ata—he even wondered if Ata was an alien "for about a minute." He just wanted to find out what she was. In 2012, he was part of a team that mapped 92 percent of Ata's DNA and found that she was human.

The fact that 92 percent of the DNA was confirmed human doesn't mean that the rest wasn't, though. Theories that a human mated with an alien are truly absurd, Nolan said. "[The idea] that it was an alien, that's one thing," he said. "But that it bred with a human? You're more likely to breed with a petunia!"

New Discoveries

Nolan wanted to know more about the specimen—not just the species—so he and his team analyzed its DNA. They took a small piece out of the front of the ribs and got 12 micrograms, which Nolan describes as an enormous amount, "a bonanza of DNA to do the analysis on."

They mapped the DNA and compared it with other people and their traits, which helped them paint a picture of what happened to Ata. They found that the specimen was female, local to the region where she was said to have been found and that she likely died before or soon after birth.

They also found that she had scoliosis, dwarfism and other bone disorders. She also had turricephaly, which causes the skull to be steeped upward and somewhat pointed. She had mutations in genes associated with craniodermal dysplasia and Greenberg skeletal dysplasia as well.

Nolan says it likely wasn't a coincidence that one child had all these different deformities. He describes a genome as similar to a football team: Sometimes, a few genes can interact with other genes and one bad "player" can influence the whole organism.

"When you put together multiple [deformities] at a time, you get this sort of domino effect," he explained. "And that's what we think we see with this phenotype."

The team published their research in the journal Genome Research.

A stratovolcano called Licancabur in the Atacama Desert in Chile. This desert is where Ata was found. Kevin Rheese / Flickr

Moving Forward

Preliminary research can often move science forward in unknown ways, ultimately leading to clinical research and treatments. The research could also lead to further investigations into nitrates as a teratogen, or something that causes disorders in the human bodies. Was Ata a victim of the nitrate mining in the town where her mother lived, and could others be affected as well?

Only further research will tell. But what will become of Ata, now that science has a more thorough understanding of how she came to be?

Ata resides with a private owner in Spain, and no authority is demanding that he return it to the desert. But Nolan believes that it would be the right thing to do to turn it over to Native Chilean authorities. Besides, it was once a person.

Nolan explained that Ata was dear to someone, as you can tell by the way that someone laid out the body and kept it close. "The arms are at the side, it's laid out perfectly flat, prostrate, it's laid out with a sort of reverence or respect," Nolan explained. "They thought it was special, they saved it and it ended up on a shelf somewhere."

"They died early and they should be treated with respect," Nolan added.

The head of the Atacama skeleton: It was believed that Ata had turricephaly, which causes the skull to be steeped upward and somewhat pointed. An international research team of researchers has now questioned whether the skeleton found in the Atacama Desert was a human girl with severe genetic mutations. Courtesy of Dr. Emory Smith
Atacama 'Alien' Skeleton Mystery Revealed With DNA Analysis | Tech & Science