Genetic testing has revealed the true identity of an exceptional mummy found in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The skeleton is so strange that some have claimed it as evidence of alien life – but in truth, the remains belong to a human girl known as Ata who is believed to have been stillborn or to have died shortly after birth. Despite skeletal features similar to those of a child between six and eight years old, Ata was only six inches tall. She also had two fewer ribs than an average human while her skull is long and conical, evoking pop culture images of a grey alien.

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In 2013, Stanford University professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan conducted a genetic test that confirmed Ata’s humanity. However, the reasons behind Ata’s appearance remained a mystery. In a study published in Genome Research, Nolan and researchers at the University of California in San Francisco have presented their full genetic analysis of Ata, which offers more information on who she was and how she came to possess such extraordinary features. While the exact time of Ata’s life and death is unclear, her mixed indigenous and European ancestry indicates that she must have been born sometime after the Spanish colonization of Chile in the 1500s.

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Ata’s DNA test indicates that she had mutations on at least seven different genes known for affecting skeletal development. Ata may also have suffered from congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a potentially life-threatening disorder defined by an undeveloped diaphragm. Despite Ata’s unique physiology, research done on her remains may prove applicable in modern medicine. “Understanding the process might allow us to develop therapies or drugs that drive bone development for people in, say, catastrophic car crashes,” Nolan told the Guardian. As for the alien angle, Nolan strongly rejects it. “While this started as a story about aliens, and went international, it’s really a story of a human tragedy,” said Nolan. “A woman had a malformed baby, it was preserved in a manner and then ‘hocked’ or sold as a strange artifact. 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.”

Via The Guardian

Images via Dr. Emery Smith