Scientist have finally solved the mystery of 'Ata' – the little skeleton with an alien-shaped skull considered to be an extra-terrestrial being for long.
Nearly 15 years ago, researchers discovered a mysterious skeleton in the Atacama Desert of Chile in 2003. The skeleton was recovered in a leather pouch, behind an abandoned church. About 15 centimetres tall, the skeleton has an elongated skull, slanted eye sockets – making it look like an alien. Dated to approximately 1970s, the skeleton also has just 10 pairs of ribs instead of the usual 12.
The skeleton's physical dimensions baffled scientists for long.
Now, after five years of examination, a research team unravelled the genetic make-up of Ata.
Led by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University, forensic analysis of the remains revealed they undoubtedly belonged to a human – a child aged around six years of age.
It belonged to an infant girl with a handful of rare gene mutations linked to dwarfism, deformities and apparent premature aging, said the study in Genome Research.
But the researchers admit, it's genetic mutation was previously unkown.
Experts previously said that the bones appeared to belong to someone between the ages of six and eight, but this advanced wear on the bones was likely a consequence of the child`s deformities, not a reflection of her actual age.
In fact, the study said she likely didn`t live long, and may have been born premature.
"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations... it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," said the study.
Researchers now say the skeleton -- which is incredibly intact -- is probably no more than 40 years old.
Using DNA extracted from the bone marrow, researchers did a whole-genome analysis which determined that she was South American, "with genetic variations that identified her as being from the Andean region inhabited by the Chilean Chilote Indians," said the report.
The child had a never-before seen rib count of 10 pairs. Humans typically have 12 pairs.
Senior author Garry Nolan, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said "a relatively short list of mutations in genes known previously to be associated with bone development" were found in genes related to dwarfism, scoliosis, and musculoskeletal abnormalities.
Some were previously known to scientists, others were not.
Just how the child came to have these genetic flaws is still a mystery, but researchers suggested contamination from a nearby mine could be to blame.
"While we can only speculate as to the cause for multiple mutations in Ata`s genome, the specimen was found in La Noria, one of the Atacama Desert`s many abandoned nitrate mining towns, which suggests a possible role for prenatal nitrate exposure leading to DNA damage," said the study.
Nolan said the discovery could one day lead to treatments for people with bone problems.
"Maybe there`s a way to accelerate bone growth in people who need it, people who have bad breaks," he said.
"Nothing like this had been seen before. Certainly, nobody had looked into the genetics of it."
For now, though, he urged the skeleton -- which is owned by a Spanish archeological collector -- to be returned to Chile.
"I think it should be returned to the country of origin and buried according to the customs of the local people."
Since its initial discovery, Ata was sold on to the black market and eventually passed into the hands of a Spanish businessman.