Mummified Ata 'alien' skeleton definitely human, DNA proves

Ata was found in 2003.
Ata was found in 2003. Photo credit: University of California

A bizarre skeleton conspiracy theorists claimed could belong to an alien actually belonged to a female that was most definitely human, DNA analysis has proved.

The tiny skeleton was discovered in the Atacama Desert in Chile 15 years ago. Ata, as it was dubbed, was only 15cm tall - the size of a 22-week-old foetus - and had only 10 ribs.

But what caught people's attention was the shape of her eyes and elongated skull. Apart from her size, Ata looked the splitting image the stereotypical alien.

"I had heard about this specimen through a friend of mine, and I managed to get a picture of it," says Garry Nolan, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford. "You can't look at this specimen and not think it's interesting; it's quite dramatic."

Dr Nolan's initial research a few years ago failed to quell talk Ata was an extra-terrestrial. The fact around 9 percent of the DNA didn't match that of a typical human didn't help the scientist's cause. Their finding Ata's tiny bones were about six to eight years old when she died also posed a conundrum.

For the latest research, Dr Nolan enlisted Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California-San Francisco.

"When doctors perform analyses for patients and their families, we're often searching for one cause - one super-rare or unusual mutation that can explain the child's ailment," says Dr Butte. "But in this case, we're pretty confident that multiple things went wrong."

Using a small sample of DNA extracted from Ata's ribs they found she was definitely human, definitely female and from the Chilean region - but with significant European ancestry. They also discovered numerous genetic mutations linked to facial and bone deformities - and some that hadn't been before.

"Some of these mutations, though found in genes already known to cause disease, had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders," they said in a statement.

It's believed the sheer number of deformities would have made Ata stillborn. Her bones appeared much older than they really were due to a bone-aging disorder.

"For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom," said Dr Butte.

"It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy.

"We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders, and we're going to want to make sure that if there's one mutation, we know that - but if there's more than one, we know that too."

Dr Nolan says he'd like to study more stillborn foetuses, theorising mutations like Ata's could be more common than realised - just not noticed because little research has been done.

The findings were published in journal Genome Research.