Science & Technology

The Weird Story of an Infamous "Alien" Skeleton

The place: Atacama Desert, Chile. The year: 2003. A local man named Oscar Muñoz was searching for trinkets left in the abandoned town of La Noria when, according to UFO news site OpenMinds, he spotted a white cloth tied with a violet ribbon. Inside, he found a miniature skeleton, about the length of a pen, with an elongated skull and the wrong number of ribs. Could it be an alien? UFO hunters and scientists alike have puzzled over the true nature of this skeleton, dubbed the "Atacama humanoid" or just "Ata," ever since. On March 22, 2018, a research team presented the most thorough conclusions yet. The verdict? Definitely not an alien.

Analyze This

Despite sensational reporting by a local tabloid, the story didn't really pick up steam until 2013, when the UFO documentary "Sirius" featured it as evidence that government agencies were covering up the existence of extraterrestrial visitation. Stanford University immunologist Gary P. Nolan, Ph. D., heard about the film while it was still in production and offered to examine Ata's DNA. The owner of the specimen agreed to X-ray images and bone marrow samples, and Nolan got to work.

What he found was baffling. Instead of the standard 12 ribs, Ata had 10. He showed the skull to pediatric radiologist Ralph Lachman, who, as Nolan told Science Magazine, "literally wrote the book on pediatric bone disorders." Lachman said it was like nothing he had ever seen. And the X-rays? Despite Ata's small size, which matched that of a 22-week-old fetus, they showed the bone development to be equivalent to a 6- to 8-year-old child. "How do you explain that something six inches tall survived to any length of time that would allow for it to survive a hundred or a thousand years ago?" Nolan said in the documentary.

But one thing was certain: the bones were human. Ata died recently enough — 500 years ago or less — to provide ample, high-quality DNA, which researchers found to closely match a reference human genome, and even indicate that Ata's mother was from Chile. Still, many more questions were left unanswered.

A 500-Year-Old Tragedy

For the new study, published online in the journal Genome Research, computational biologist Atul Butte of the University of California, San Francisco joined in the fray. He and other researchers attempted to sequence Ata's entire genome and were able to come to many more conclusions about the skeleton. Ata was female, for one thing.

Sanchita Bhattacharya, a researcher in Dr. Butte's lab, discovered 54 rare mutations in Ata's DNA that she believed could shut down a gene. Many of those genes play a role in skeleton formation — no surprise there — and some are familiar, like those for dwarfism, scoliosis, and even having an unusual number of ribs. But some weren't familiar. It's possible that Ata had a genetic mutation unknown to science that made her skeleton mature too quickly, which could have led her to die in the womb.

If Ata was a stillbirth, these never-before-seen mutations make some sense. According to the New York Times, scientists generally don't study the DNA of stillbirths, and it's possible that the ones today involve — or are a result of — variations of these mutations. This may be the thing that leads scientists to take a second look.

Ata is certainly unusual, but she's an unusual human. No alien theories necessary.

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For more seemingly "unexplainable" phenomena, check out "The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files" by Joe Nickell and James Randi. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer March 23, 2018

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