Researchers finally solve mystery of 'alien' skeleton

The mummified specimen from Atacama region of Chile.

Story highlights

  • An unusual skeleton found in Chile has perplexed people for more than a decade
  • Whole genome sequencing revealed what caused its abnormalities

(CNN)A mummified skeleton discovered in Chile's Atacama Desert 15 years ago doesn't look like anyone you've ever met. In fact, some would say it looks, well, alien.

It's a skeletal conundrum made up of perplexing features. It's only 6 inches tall -- but initial estimates of the age of the bones were consistent with a child aged 6 to 8 years.
    The long, angular skull, slanted eye sockets and fewer than normal ribs -- 10 pairs rather than the normal 12 -- only deepened the mystery.
    Questions surrounding the discovery led to speculation that it was a previously unidentified primate or even an extraterrestrial life form.
    The skeleton, dubbed Ata, was featured in TV shows and a documentary, "Sirius," in which a UFO researcher attempts to figure out Ata's origins.
    Now, the authors of a study based on five years of genomic analysis want to set the record straight: Ata is human, albeit one with multiple bone disease-associated mutations. And they believe that their findings, published Thursday in the journal Genome Research, could help diagnose genetic mutation-based cases for living patients.

    Investigating Ata

    In 2003, Ata was found in a deserted mining town called La Noria, in Chile's Atacama region. It was thought to be ancient at first, but initial analysis conducted in 2012 proved that the skeleton was only about 40 years old. This meant DNA would still be intact and could be retrieved for study.
    The widespread speculation surrounding Ata brought the case to the attention of Gary Nolan, senior author of the new study and professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.