Atacama mummy’s deformities were unduly sensationalized

fetal mummy

MUMMIFIED  The 6-inch-long body of a fetal mummy known as Ata, who scientists now say was a female, was preserved due to the arid conditions of Chile’s Atacama Desert.

S. Bhattacharya et al/Genome Research 2018

By analyzing the genome of a tiny fetal mummy known as Ata, researchers have learned more about what led to its strange-looking deformities — and that Ata was not an it, but a she.

The 6-inch human mummy, found in 2003 in Chile’s Atacama Desert, contains genetic mutations associated with skeletal abnormalities and joint problems, researchers report online March 22 in Genome Research. Those mutations help explain how Ata developed her elongated skull, large eye sockets and missing ribs — features that previously sparked suppositions the she was an extraterrestrial.

But Ata’s origins are not out of this world. She is probably of Chilean descent, says geneticist Garry Nolan of Stanford University, who has been the driving force behind examining Ata scientifically.

“I wanted to understand what could make something look like that,” he says. Nolan never claimed Ata was an alien, but he admits to playing a role in the hype surrounding Ata by participating in a documentary that advanced claims about her supposed otherworldly origins. He now says she should be buried as human remains.

Paolo Viscardi, a zoologist at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin who was not involved with the research, says the new study helps debunk Ata’s origin myths. “Ata highlighted the fact that people are quick to dehumanize and sensationalize anything unusual,” he says.

More Stories from Science News on Genetics