“May she rest in peace”: The tragic origins of Ata the “alien” mummy finally revealed
In 2003, a peculiar discovery was found near a ghost town in Chile’s Atacama Desert: the mummified remains of something that looked human, but not.
For starters, its body was just 6in long. Secondly, it had just ten ribs, rather than the standard human set of 12. Thirdly, the head was different: an elongated cone shape. Something so unusual got international coverage, especially when a radiological study of the bones revealed them to be as mature as a six-year-old human’s. If this mummy was so alien to us, could it actually be an alien?
The truth, it turns out, is both less dramatic and considerably more upsetting. Researchers from the University of California performed a number of tests on Ata’s mummified remains to discover that the body is that of a human female – but a human female that possessed at least seven genetic mutations and was either stillborn or died very shortly after birth. That birth, the latest research indicates, would have likely been in the 1960s.
“She was so badly malformed as to be unable to feed,” said Garry Nolan, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, told The Guardian. “In her condition, she would have ended up in the neonatal ICU, but given where the specimen was found, such things were simply not available.”
DNA extracted from the bones revealed that Ata carried at mutations in her genes which are known to either cause skeletal malformation or accelerate bone development. She was most definitely human, and the DNA seemed to resemble that of other Chileans. “That poor child unfortunately rolled the dice seven times snake eyes,” Nolan told National Geographic.
As well as the unusual shape and size of Ata’s body, the manner in which she was buried initially attracted media attention. Wrapped in white cloth and tied with a violet ribbon, Ata was not just abandoned. And now it’s clear why. “They didn’t just throw it away; somebody thought it was important. It was their child,” Nolan said.
“While this started as a story about aliens, and went international, it’s really a story of a human tragedy”
While with hindsight it may appear crass, the analysis of the body could have important repercussions for medicine, helping people with skeletal problems. Ata’s bones could help us develop therapies or drugs to help those in car accidents, for example.
Ata’s body was bought by a Spanish businessman in 2003, but now it’s clear the remains represent those of a human life cut tragically short, Nolan is hoping that the body can be returned to Chile for a proper burial.
“While this started as a story about aliens, and went international, it’s really a story of a human tragedy,” Nolan told The Guardian. “A woman had a malformed baby, it was preserved in a manner and then ‘hocked’ or sold as a strange artefact. It turns out to be human, with a fascinating genetic story from which we might learn something important to help others. May she rest in peace.”
Images: Emery Smith