In 2003, in La Noria, a deserted mining town in Chile’s Atacama Desert, Oscar Muñoz found mummified remains in a leather bag, humanoid in appearance but only 15 cm (6 in) tall– it was a mystery. Scientists were confused by the skeleton’s apparent advanced age (developmental maturity) despite its tiny stature. Paranormal proponents believed it was evidence of extraterrestrials.
News of Muñoz’s “find” was reported frequently across Chile for over a decade– apparently with no concern from the Chilean government or academics about how or why he found it– only pop-cultural speculation about what it was: human or alien? Soon, the specimen was nicknamed “Ata” after the Atacama Desert.
Ata was the size of a 5-month-old fetus but had the bone development of a 6-year-old child. To clarify: babies are born with cartilage that eventually develops into the patellas (the boney kneecaps)–- but Ata already had boney kneecaps and was missing two pairs of ribs and their skull was deformed.
After being sold by Muñoz (allegedly for a whopping €40) Ata ended up in the private collection of Ramón Navia-Osorio in Barcelona, Spain becoming the subject of a “documentary” on aliens. Upon hearing about this film, Stanford University immunologist, Garry Nolan, offered to do a DNA analysis on the remains provided that the filmmakers agreed to acknowledge the results in their documentary. Nolan was sure the remains were human but he was unsure how old they were or what would have caused the small stature and skeletal anomalies. The disorders researchers considered included dwarfism, progeria, and oxycephaly but none of these alone explained the remains.
Nolan and his colleague Atul Butte of the University of California were sent a small sample of bone marrow and x-rays by Ramón Navia-Osorio. The DNA analysis showed that Ata was a human female and her mother was Chilean with Asian and European ancestry. The presence of European ancestry put Ata’s lifetime within the last 500 years. Based on the preservation of the DNA, researchers discovered that Ata had been interred recently, within a few decades of her discovery, probably in the 1970s. (Note: mummification only requires the right environment such as the driest place on Earth, ala the Atacama Desert, and not necessarily a lot of time.) As to what resulted in her demise: Nolan found 54 genetic anomalies, a couple never before known to science and some known for causing the reduced number of ribs and small stature.
Most researchers agree that Ata was born prematurely, likely a stillbirth, due to her genetic mutations. Nolan said, “This specimen had the bad luck lottery,” he says. “We all are born with multiple mutations, and that’s evolution, but sometimes the mutations all align badly.” Other experts disagree with Nolan, pointing out that some of Ata’s genetic variants Nolan described as a cause for her features are common and benign. Butte points out that the specimen was found in a town with abandoned nitrate mines and nitrate exposure may have caused her genetic mutations, though it is only speculation in this case.
Similar remains have been found elsewhere in the world, for example, Alyoshenka or the Kyshtym Dwarf, a (human) fetal female mummy discovered in the Russian village of Kaolinovy in 1996. Similar theories surround her origins as well, from extraterrestrial to multiple genetic mutations to environmental causes, in this case, the fall-out from the 1957 Kyshtym Disaster. (Though it is impossible to say as remains went missing decades ago and all we have left is a crappy video of a bunch of dude-bros whipping the fragile mummy around by the legs as bits flake off.)
In a New York Times article from 2018, author Carl Zimmer noted that if researchers paid more attention to miscarriages and stillbirths we might know more about the genetic anomalies that cause them and be more familiar with the conditions that caused Ata’s and possibly Alyoshenka’s conditions.
Nolan and Butte wrote in their May 2018 commentary in Genome Research, “[Ata] was a girl with many DNA mutations, not anything more exotic. Further functional studies of these alterations may lead to a clearer understanding of the genes that regulate bone development and might help the world diagnose and treat other children with genetic diseases driving bone growth abnormalities.”
In my opinion, extraterrestrials have, do, or will exist. But if they ever make contact with us Earthlings I wonder what they will think of those humans who ignore the tragedy of a miscarriage (potentially caused by industrial pollution) for the entertainment of alien conspiracy theorists. Or what they will think of the humans who attacked the scientists who gave this tiny baby girl back her humanity.
We know definitively, without a doubt, that Ata was human and had a human mother, a family, and a community (they may still be alive, though they haven’t come forward). While we don’t know the particular circumstances of the pregnancy, the loss of it would have been painful, and the sight of Ata would have caused a lot of anxiety. Was it her first pregnancy? Did many people in the village experience miscarriages? Is that why the village was abandoned? If so, was the mining company aware of the teratogenic risk of nitrates? Did they inform their workers? The local inhabitants? That’s the kind of documentary I would prefer to see resources put into.
Let me know what you think in the comments. If you would like to support my research please consider becoming a patron on Patreon.
“Atacama Skeleton.” Wikipedia.
Bhattacharya, Sanchita, et al. April 2018. “Whole-genome sequencing of Atacama skeleton shows novel mutations linked with dysplasia.” Genome Research 28(4), 423–431. PubMed.
Nolan, Garry and Atal Butte. May 2018. “Atacama Skeleton.” Genome Research 28(5), 607–608. PubMed.
NowYouKnow. 4 Dec 2014. “Mummified Alien Discovered In Russia Village.” Youtube.
Stone, Richard. 3 May 2013. “Bizarre 6-Inch Skeleton Shown to Be Human.” Science.org (AAAS).
Strickland, Ashley. 22 March 2018. “Researchers finally solve mystery of ‘alien’ skeleton.” CNN.
Trevino, Jessica. 30 March 2018. “Chilean Government Investigates Whether the Atacama Mummy Was Illegally Exhumed.” Smithsonian Magazine.
Warren, Matt. 22 March 2018. “This strange ‘alien’ skeleton is actually a human fetus with genetic bone defects.” Science.org (AAAS).
Zimmer, Carl. 22 March 2018. “Was a Tiny Mummy in the Atacama an Alien? No, but the Real Story Is Almost as Strange.” The New York Times.
Zimmer, Carl. 28 March 2018. “Chile and Its Scientists Protest Research on Tiny Mummy.” The New York Times.