The Heartbreaking Truth Behind The "Atacama Alien"

Photographs of 'Ata' taken by researchers on the study in question. Bhattacharya et al./Genome Research, 2018

In March of this year, a team of California-based medical and genetic researchers published a paper that seemingly answered many of the burning questions surrounding the mysterious “Atacama Alien”.

Said to have been unearthed from the church graveyard of an abandoned town in Chile’s Atacama desert, the partially mummified 15-centimeter (6-inch) remains had shocked and puzzled the world since 2003, thanks to their tiny stature and uncanny fusion of features from a human skeleton and a classic “little green man” Hollywood alien.

Captivated by the oddity and hoping to discover the true origin of the remains, Professor Garry Nolan of Stanford University performed a detailed examination of the bones before looping in Atul Butte, from UCSF, for a whole genome analysis. After five years of work, Nolan and Butte concluded that the remains, which they affectionately nicknamed "Ata", belong to a preterm fetus that died approximately 40 years ago. They stated that the abnormal morphology and contradictory bone plate condition – which initially suggested Ata was 6 to 8 years old at the time of death – could be explained by the many genetic mutations they identified.

But now, an international group of experts in anatomy, anthropology, archaeology, and obstetrics and gynecology is calling these findings into question.

In an article published in the International Journal of Paleopathology, lead author Sian Halcrow and her colleagues argue that the available physical evidence does not support Nolan and Butte’s claim that Ata is riddled with malformations. Moreover, they assert that the previously encountered DNA sequence variations discovered in Ata's genome are unlikely to cause skeletal or joint problems and the effects of the novel mutations simply cannot be inferred at this time. The truth is seems, is much simpler.

“As experts in human anatomy and skeletal development, we find no evidence for any of the skeletal anomalies claimed by the authors. Their observations of ‘anomalies’ represent normal skeletal development in the foetus, cranial moulding from delivery,” – basically, the peculiar skull shape can be explained by the pressure of vaginal birth – “and potential post-mortem [burial-related] effects,” they wrote.

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And although the analysis did reveal several genetic mutations that have been more definitely linked to skeletal dysplasias and other disorders, Halcrow’s group believes that Nolan and Butte’s comparison to a randomly selected healthy control of Chilean descent invalidates their own theory by demonstrating that “it is possible to find a similar number of variants as identified in the Atacama foetus in any given human and that these may be associated with a variety of disorders that will never be expressed in the phenotype.” 

In a final blow to the earlier research, the current team raises ethical and legal concerns regarding how the fetal remains were removed from their burial site, transported, and sampled.

"This mummy reflects a sad loss for a mother in the Atacama Desert," co-author Dr Bernardo Arriaza said in a statement.

Professor Halcrow added that she and another author sought to respond directly to the previous study, yet: "We were both told that Genome Research does not publish letters to the editor, only original research papers, despite senior authors Nolan and Butte's later response statement in which they seek to justify the ethics of their analyses.”

"For the scientific process to advance it is essential to have open debate through peer-reviewed journals."

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