Mystery of the “alien” found in Chile has finally been solved

Credits: Bhattacharya S et al. 2018

Its bones were as calcified as a child of 6 to 8 years of age. However, the apparent age of the skeleton was in stark contrast with its size. If this little “alien” were to stand up, it would barely measure 15 centimeters in height. No more was needed to attract people seeking extraterrestrials! Fifteen years after its discovery, “Ata” can finally tell its story!

And it has nothing to do with extraterrestrials. At least, not according to the story told by its genes. But it is a remarkable story all the same. A bone marrow sample finally allowed researchers to identify the causes of the skeleton’s malformations. The famous little “alien”, nicknamed “Ata”, was found in 2003 in the Atacama Desert in Chile. As we can learn in an article which appeared in Genome Research, Ata was in reality a baby girl with serious dysfunction in the genes responsible for bone growth.

We can now confirm with  certainty that this is not an extraterrestrial, but a child who was either born prematurely, or else born after term and who died immediately after coming into the world”, explains Gary Nolan, geneticist in Stanford University in the United States. “I think that the remains should be returned to Chile and buried in accordance with local traditions.”

Despite its small size, the skeleton’s bones in fact resembled, in terms of their shape, those of an eight year old child. Furthermore, Ata had 10 pairs of ribs, and not 12 like other people. The researchers explained that they had succeeded in determining around 60 genes linked to the development of scoliosis and disruptions in collagen synthesis. The study also showed that Ata couldn’t have been 8 years old when she died, but was dead either before birth or just after it.

Scientists hope that follow up tests on Ata’s genes, whose skeleton is being kept in a secure location in Spain, will help to establish the cause of a whole series of congenital skeletal illnesses, in the hope of finding new treatment options.