A photo provided by Bhattacharya S et al. 2018 of a mummified skeleton from the Atacama Desert in Chile that has been described as “alien.” Known as “Ata,” the six-inch-long skeleton may have had genetic mutations causing a bone disorder never before documented. (Bhattacharya S et al. 2018 via The New York Times)

Nearly two decades ago, the rumors began: In the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, someone had discovered a tiny mummified alien.

An amateur collector exploring a ghost town was said to have come across a white cloth in a leather pouch. Unwrapping it, he found a 6-inch-long skeleton.

Despite its size, the skeleton was remarkably complete. It even had hardened teeth. And yet there were striking anomalies: it had 10 ribs instead of the usual 12, giant eye sockets and a long skull that ended in a point.

Ata, as the remains came to be known, ended up in a private collection, but the rumors continued, fueled in part by a UFO documentary in 2013 that featured the skeleton. On Thursday, a team of scientists presented a very different explanation for Ata — one without aliens, but intriguing in its own way.

Ata’s bones contain DNA that not only shows she was human, but that she belonged to the local population. What’s more, the researchers identified in her DNA a group of mutations in genes related to bone development.

Some of these mutations might be responsible for the skeleton’s bizarre form, causing a hereditary disorder never before documented in humans.

Antonio Salas Ellacuriaga, a geneticist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain who was not involved in the new study, called it “a very beautiful example of how genomics can help to disentangle an anthropological and archaeological dilemma.”

“DNA autopsies,” as Ellacuriaga calls them, could help shed light on medical disorders “by looking to the past to understand the present.”

The scientists eventually managed to reconstruct much of Ata’s genome. She was a girl, they found, most closely related to indigenous Chileans. But she also had a substantial amount of European ancestry.

The scientists have not carried out any precise dating of the skeleton, so they can’t say exactly when Ata lived. But her European heritage suggested it was sometime after Chile was colonized in the 1500s.

After death, DNA disintegrates into fragments, which become smaller over the centuries. 

Ata’s DNA fragments are still large, another clue that she’s less than 500 years old.

While her elongated head was striking, it wasn’t the strangest feature of Ata’s skeleton. Despite being the size of a human fetus, about the length of a pen, her bones were as developed in some ways as those of a 6-year-old.

Researcher Sanchita Bhattacharya searched for mutations in Ata’s DNA and identified 2.7 million variants throughout the genome. She whittled this list to 54 rare mutations that could potentially shut down the gene in which they were located.

“I was amazed by how much you can tell from the genetic blueprint,” Bhattacharya said.

Many of those genes, it turned out, are involved in building skeletons. Some have already been linked to conditions ranging from scoliosis to dwarfism to having an abnormal number of ribs.

But some of Ata’s mutations are new to science. It’s possible some caused her skeleton to mature quickly even while failing to grow to normal stature.

Bhattacharya speculates that such a disorder would have caused the child to be stillborn. And she stressed that these mutations are, for now, only theoretical candidates.

Yet understanding what happened to Ata might shed light on skeletal deformities seen today. That may require engineering stem cells with each of the 54 mutations, growing them in a dish, and then looking for telling changes in their development.

This is an adaption of the original story which appeared in the New York Times