In 2003, Chilean hunter Osca Munoz found a strange-looking skeleton that would very quickly send scientists — and conspiracy theorists — into a whirlwind of suppositions.
The mummy was found in the Atacama Desert in a ghost town called La Noria, earning the nickname “Ata.” The skeleton had a tiny body and a large skull, which made people think it was some form of extraterrestial life, USA Today reports.
Now, years after the find, the speculations can stop. According to researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University , genetic analysis has revealed the mummy to be a premature human baby whose head was misshapen by a genetic condition on birth.
However, it remains unclear if the child was stillborn or died after being born.
In the five years that the team worked on the mummy, they found several other things, including multiple genetic mutations. These were the reason for the underdeveloped body, scoliosis and other malformations. Aside from the elongated skull, the body also showed onyl ten instead of twelve ribs.
The scientists used human gene samples, along with reference genome samples taken from chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys to clarify that the mummy is, indeed, human.
A comparison of genomes showed that Ata was Chilean in lineage, and an examination of chromosomes showed that the mummy was a girl. In addition, several parts of the bones showed similarities to that of a 6- or 7-year-old girl.
The scientists concluded that Ata had rare bone degeneration that hastened her death, and estimated that she died around 40 years ago. The mummy’s petrified condition helped the team form their conclusions.
The circumstances regarding Ata’s discovery remain mysterious, as Munoz did not fully disclose how or when he found the body, leading to suspicions that the mummy was found during a grave robbery, which is common in the area. The scientists now call for the mummy to be interred back in Chile.
The study was published in Genome Research.