Researchers have been able to understand the unusual morphology of Ata, an unusual “alien-looking” skeleton found in the Atacama Desert in 2003.
A very long skull. A pointy head housing some big eyes. A body measuring only 15 centimeters. In 2003, the world was amazed by this skeleton found in the Atacama desert in Chile. Was it a nonhuman primate? An alien? The answer, given a decade later, was without appeal: the DNA taken from the bone marrow was that of a human. This first mystery solved, the researchers were able to take a deeper interest in the causes of this unusual morphology. A team published its results on March 23, 2018: Ata – the name given to the little being – is a girl who presents rare genetic mutations associated with dwarfism.
“We now know that this is a child, presumably stillborn or dead after birth,” Garry Nolan, lead author of the study and professor of microbiology and immunology from Stanford University, California. As the study, published March 23, 2018 in the journal Genome Research, notes, experts previously estimated that the bones belonged to someone aged six to eight.
The mummified skeleton was found 15 years ago, behind a church, slipped into a leather clutch. The good condition of these remains suggests that it is forty years at most. The researchers were able to analyze more closely the sex chromosomes of the being. “These results led us to infer that the Ata was a girl with two X chromosomes,” they write in their study. They also sequenced the genome and compared it to the genomes of five “super-populations”: Africans, Americans, East Asians, Europeans, and finally South Asians. Through this process, the team was able to determine that Ata was originally from South America, from the Chiloe Island in Chile.
Previous studies had already demonstrated the presence of genetic mutations that would have caused the skeleton’s dramatic appearance. Here, the researchers identified in the DNA new areas with abnormalities. According to them, it is quite likely that the association of mutations already known with this new discovery is responsible for the small size of Ata, the inappropriate number of ribs, and the abnormal cranial characteristics.
I think it should be returned to the country of origin and buried according to the customs of the local people
— Garry Nolan
Because of the severity of these mutations, resulting in 15 centimeters of skeletal size, the researchers estimate that “it seems likely that the sample was a premature birth”.
According to the researchers, the mutation could have been caused by prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals. “The specimen was found at La Noria, one of the many abandoned mining towns of the Atacama Desert, suggesting a possible role for the prenatal exposure to nitrate,” the explained. The team recognizes, however, that future genetic studies will have to deepen the cause of this morphology, both at the molecular level and the population.
This discovery may lead to treatments for people with bone problems, says Garry Nolan. For now, he wants the skeleton — owned by a Spanish collector — to return to Chile. “I think it should be returned to the country of origin and buried according to the customs of the local population”.