The mystery of Ata the mini-mummy began when seemingly humanoid remains were found in 2003. The figure, a mere six inches tall with an oddly conical skull and enlarged eye sockets, was found in the small town of La Noria, 450 miles north of Chile’s Atacama Desert. Like many such artifacts, it was sold—its provenance and therefore legality is murky—eventually coming to the attention of UFO enthusiast Steven Greer (founder of the UFO Disclosure Project) in 2012. Greer claimed the figure was extraterrestrial. An initial analysis answered one question but raised others; it was not ancient—as had been assumed—but instead less than fifty years old. But was it human?
Gary Nolan, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, recently examined the curiosity. As National Geographic reported:
Nolan worked with genetic researchers at Stanford and with computational biologist Atul Butte’s team at the University of California, San Francisco to analyze Ata’s genome. According to their new study, mutations are present in seven of Ata’s genes that are all involved in human growth. Nolan now thinks that this combination of mutations caused Ata’s severe skeletal abnormalities, including her unusually rapid bone growth. He says that Ata is most likely a human fetus who was either stillborn or died soon after birth. … Nolan thinks that someone cared for Ata when she died about 40 years ago. He points to the way she was carefully laid flat on the ground, wrapped in a leather pouch. (https://tinyurl.com/y9keyuol)
The article, “Whole-Genome Sequencing of Atacama Skeleton Shows Novel Mutations Linked with Dysplasia,” was published in the March 2018 edition of the journal Genome Research. The abstract notes:
The Ata specimen carried a strange phenotype—6-in stature, fewer than expected ribs, elongated cranium, and accelerated bone age—leading to speculation that this was a preserved nonhuman primate, human fetus harboring genetic mutations, or even an extraterrestrial. We previously reported that it was human by DNA analysis with an estimated bone age of about 6–8 yr at the time of demise. To determine the possible genetic drivers of the observed morphology, DNA from the specimen was subjected to whole-genome sequencing using the Illumina HiSeq platform with an average 11.5× coverage of 101-bp, paired-end reads … . Ata is a female of human origin, likely of Chilean descent, and its genome harbors mutations in genes … previously linked with diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia).
Ata shows a number of rare mutations, and researchers suggest that the cause of the deformities might be exposure to nitrates, which are unusually high in the region because La Noria is a former mining town.
Long-dead bodies with deformed skulls have previously been mistaken for extraterrestrials, but there is nothing unusual about finding deformed skulls in the Americas; archaeologists have found them for years. Cranial deformation is a widely known practice, and in 2012 archaeologists in Mexico found a burial ground of twenty-five skeletons; of those, more than half showed intentional skull deformation. In 2015, a pair of mummified cats found in Chile was mistaken for the chupacabra. The felines had disproportionately large heads compared to the rest of their bodies and were likely kittens. Part of the reason that these objects seem so bizarre and mysterious is that very few people outside of the fields of archaeology and anthropology are familiar with the process and appearance of mummification.
For most people, the word mummy evokes bandaged, slow-moving monsters from ancient Egypt. We typically think of bodies being reduced to a skeleton not long after death, but in fact bodies may be preserved for centuries or millennia, either through intentional preservation (such as mummification) or because the environment where a person died helps preserve the bodies (for example high in the cold Andes mountains or in deserts where the lack of moisture inhibits decay-causing bacteria). Adult mummies are strange enough, but baby mummies are even rarer and stranger looking. Because babies have disproportionally large heads compared to the rest of their bodies, their desiccated remains seem all the more inhuman.
Archaeologists digging near Mexico’s Sonora desert have discovered what appears to be the burial ground of an early Mesoamerican society, including signs of deformed skulls. Deformed skulls found in Mexico have been offered as evidence for ancient extraterrestrial visitation. A child’s deformed skull—later dubbed the “Starchild skull”—was found in the early 1930s in the arid region around Chihuahua. It was later sold to a UFO researcher who exhibited the artifact at UFO and paranormal-themed conferences for many years, claiming that it is too unusual to be fully human and is the offspring of an extraterrestrial male and a human female. Scientists, however, were skeptical; two sets of DNA tests (one in 1999 and another in 2003) confirmed that the skull was in fact human: a Native American or Mesoamerican male child who likely suffered from hydrocephalus, a condition that leads to skull elongation and deformation.
A common theme pervades mystery-mongering circles: anything not immediately explainable or obvious is interpreted as a baffling mystery, often with paranormal connotations. Thus, a strange object in the sky becomes a flying saucer; a mangy dead coyote becomes a chupacabra; and a deformed fetus becomes an alien hybrid. Science fiction speculation is fun but should not eclipse the real science and significance of these stories; truth is often stranger—and more interesting—than fiction.