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Why does the Atacama skeleton look like an alien but is actually human?

Profile of the Atacama Skeleton nicknamed Ata. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Profile of the Atacama Skeleton nicknamed Ata. Image credit: Wikipedia.

This bizarre little 6-inch skeleton was found in a pouch in the Atacama Desert in Chile in 2003.  Almost immediately the skeleton, nicknamed ‘Ata’ for the desert in which it was found, sparked the imaginations of people around the world and the theories of what it was ranged from mummified fetus to ancient alien child.

In 2012, when Garry Nolan, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford School of Medicine, heard that the skeleton was going to be the subject of a documentary he reached out the filmmakers and offered to examine the remains.

According to Nolan’s research, Ata’s skeletal abnormalities include the presence of 10 ribs instead of the normal 12, underdevelopment of the mid-face and jaw, and misshapen skull. Ata’s x-rays revealed skeletal development consistent with a child between 6 and 8 years old, despite it being the same size as a 22 week-old fetus.  HuffPo has a good collection collection of x-rays and other pictures of the Atacama skeleton.

Despite what you may have heard on Ancient Aliens, the Atacama skeleton is neither ancient nor alien.  Nolan’s DNA tests revealed that the skeleton is human, its mother was from the Chilean area of South America, and the remains are likely only a few decades old.  The reason for the skeletal abnormalities remain a mystery, but are likely due to a congenital birth defect. Currently Nolan is continuing the tests to find signs of mutations that could have caused these deformities.  The possibilities include: dwarfism, progeria (a rapid aging disease), or turricephaly (a birth defect that causes the skull to be cone-shaped).

The Atacama skeleton is a great reason why physical anthropologists and archaeologists study congenital diseases, or diseases present at birth. Congenital diseases that affect the skull and skeleton can deform bones so bad that they could be confused with nonhuman remains.  This knowledge is useful for archaeologists to prevent them from misidentifying the bones…and it helps to debunk those ancient alien theories that cause rage screams.

Below are some examples of congenital birth defects that have shown up in the archaeological record.

Infant with anencephaly. Image credit: Christina Holland

Anencephaly is a neural tube disorder and one of the most common skull abnormalities, and is characterized by the absence of a major part of the skull, brain, and scalp, and the cranial vault may remain open. If anencephalic births are alive, the infant generally dies within a week of birth.Research suggests that this disorder is inherited, but studies show that if mothers take folic acid during pregnancy this greatly reduces the incidence.

Microcephalic human skull. Museum of Anthropology of the University of Bologna. Image credit: Wikipedia

Microcephaly may be congenital or it may develop in the first few years of life. The disorder may stem from a wide variety of conditions that cause abnormal growth of the brain, or from syndromes associated with chromosomal abnormalities. Microcephaly is a condition in which a person’s head is significantly smaller than what is normal for their age and sex. Unlike infants born with anencephaly, microcephalic children and survive well into adulthood. Well-known microcephalic people include: Shiltzie, a circus performer; Zip the Pinhead a freak show performer; Rat People of Pakistan.

Pathological Fetus with Cyclopia at NMHM (National Museum of Health and Medicine) in Washington DC. Image credit: Curious Expeditions on Flickr.

Holoprosencephaly happens when an embryo’s forebrain does not divide to form bilateral hemispheres. It causes brain defects and facial deformities that affect the eyes, nose, and lip.  One of the symptoms is mild to severe cyclopia which prevents the division of the orbits into two cavities.  France Casts has a cast of a infant skull with Cyclopia taken from a specimen at the NMHM.

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