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In 2003 the mummified remains of a six-inch ‘humanoid’ were found in the abandoned mining town of La Noria in Chile’s Atacama desert. Known for many years in Fortean circles as the ‘Atacama Mummy’, the tiny humanoid prompted wild speculation of alien origins due odd bodily features (beyond being just 6 inches in ‘height’): 10 pairs of ribs rather the usual 12; bones that had the hall-marks of being from a 6 to 8 year old child, and a ‘cone head’.

However new genetic testing by Garry Nolan, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University in California and colleagues at the University of California in San Francisco has shown that the ‘alien mummy’ has a not-so-extraterrestrial explanation – and also a tragic one.

The researchers found that ‘Ata’ was actually a baby girl who was likely stillborn as a consequence of a large number of deleterious mutations in at least seven genes known to cause major skeletal malformations or accelerate their development. What’s more, the genetic analysis found that, apart from the mutations, Ata’s DNA closely resembled that of other South Americans – and on refining the testing that Ata “was in closest proximity to three individuals from the Andean region belonging to the Chilean Chilote population”.

However, the DNA also showed that ATA’s DNA contains an admix of European, East Asian, and other minor populations’ DNA, helping to confirm to the researchers that the mummy “is a modern human specimen”.

The researchers concluded that “although the extraordinary phenotype of the specimen drove broad discussion as to its origin, and no hypothesis was left off the table during analysis, the specimen is shown here to have a purely earthly origin.”

According to Nolan:

While this started as a story about aliens, and went international, it’s really a story of a human tragedy. 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.

The full scientific paper is available to read freely online at the website of Genome Research:

Whole-genome sequencing of Atacama skeleton shows novel mutations linked with dysplasia