Scientists Have Finally Explained The Eerie Enigma Of The Atacama “Alien” Skeleton

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Chile’s unforgiving Atacama Desert – which is among the driest locations on Earth – stretches over 600 miles. Tucked in its stony, barren terrain is an deserted mining community. Here, an explorer has stumbled upon something shocking inside a pouch made of leather. It’s a six-inch-long skeleton with features so strange, some believe it’s an alien. It will take over a decade to learn the truth.

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The person who found the Atacama skeleton, as it’s now known, couldn’t have predicted the controversy that their discovery would create. Specifically, the remains took the interest of Steven M. Greer, a ufologist. Greer then featured the strange figure in the 2013 documentary Sirius, a film which floated extraterrestrial theories.

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Greer’s flick theorized that the Atacama skeleton could be the remains of an early species of humanoid – or, indeed, evidence of alien life. By 2018, though, experts had finally figured out the truth. And as it turns out, the skeleton’s story was much more tragic than the extraordinary UFO theory could account for.

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It was 2003 when someone exploring the one-time mining hub of La Noria, Chile, stumbled upon the Atacama skeleton. Uncovering remains would be startling in any capacity, but this particular find was notably shocking. For starters, the body seemingly possessed human characteristics – yet it measured in at just six inches in length.

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The Atacama skeleton was strange in more ways than just its stature, though. You see, the average human body has a dozen pairs of ribs, but these remains only had ten sets. Then, there was the skull – it was long and angled, shaped somewhat like a cone. The eye sockets set into it were slanted, too.

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This wasn’t the first time the Atacama Desert had yielded a noteworthy find from days past. For years, people wondered why stone-built pillars called saywas dotted the arid landscape. Experts came to realize that the structures – and the land around them – had great astronomical significance to the Inca people.

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The Inca Empire endured from the early 13th century until the late 16th century. From there, though, the Spanish took their hold of Peru and its surrounding areas – most of Chile included. During their reign, though, the Inca made strides in construction and roadworks, as well as in agriculture, record-keeping and textile production.

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The Inca also built saywas throughout the Atacama Desert, much to the confusion of those who found them later. Dr. Cecelia Sanhueza is an expert on saywas associated with the Pre-Columbian Art Museum in Chile. In 2018 she explained to The Guardian that the structures probably weren’t built for decoration or signposting throughout the arid stretch of land. As she put it, “They had to have another function.”

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Luckily, Sanhueza had some age-old texts to help answer her question. She referenced 16th century dictionaries, which translated saywas to Spanish and clarified its meaning. The word had its place in astronomical, religious and calendrical spheres. Specifically, the Inca believed that their sun deity came to settle down upon these pillars during solstices.

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Next, Sanhueza asked astronomers Sergio Martin and Juan Cortés for their take on the pillars. So, the pair ran a simulation of the sun rising over the position of the saywas and discovered something stunning. That is, on particular days of the year, the sun lined up precisely with the stone figures.

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Anthropologist Jimena Cruz went to test this theory in person in 2017, trekking to a saywas just ahead of the autumn equinox. When the sun peaked out into the sky that morning, it rose just over the stone pillar. Cruz said, “It was a very emotional and beautiful moment.”

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Ultimately, the Atacama Desert saywas drew comparison to Stonehenge in southwest England. Both sites helped ancient people keep track of dates, and the stones likely served a ritualistic purpose, too. It may even have been that the Inca set the stones in this specific way in order to disseminate Inca “power” around the empire.

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On top of that, evidence uncovered in Atacama Desert revealed that the landscape may have looked very different in centuries past. Firstly, archaeologist found graves and human remains in the sand and dirt. This is strange, considering that the harsh landscape would have deterred the lands’ first settlers from trekking into South America from this direction.

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However, researchers have uncovered evidence of a previously unknown geographical feature of the Atacama Desert. The now-arid landscape may have once featured a lake within it. As such, experts have to rethink the journey that early settlers took as they ventured from the continent’s west coast inward.

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If there was a lake in the middle of the Atacama Desert, settlers wouldn’t have had to divert their path around the area. And some may have decided to stick around and make their new home around the source of water. Indeed, it had been large enough to support life that may have sprung up around it.

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Still, the discovery of the lake and the meaning of the Incan saywas caused a mere fraction of the furor that the Atacama skeleton did. As soon as the small figure came to light in 2003, people talked about who – or what – it was. The conversation only intensified after a private party purchased the remains.

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Ramón Navia-Osorio, a businessperson from Spain, bought the Atacama skeleton. Then, in 2012, he handed over his purchase to Steven Greer, a doctor and the creator of The Disclosure Project. Through his organization, he hoped to “fully disclose facts about UFOs, extraterrestrial intelligence, and classified advanced energy and propulsion systems,” as its website states.

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Greer had the know-how and resources to analyze the Atacama skeleton. Namely, he utilized x-ray technology and computed tomography, both of which gave him a more detailed glimpse into the skeleton’s make-up. A radiologist had access to the strange figure, too, hoping to figure out the period from which the bones derived.

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Interestingly, the radiologist confirmed that the Atacama skeleton had bones resembling those that a six-year-old child would have. It seemed to set the wheels spinning in Greer’s head. By 2013 he had a documentary ready to release called Sirius. According to its press release, the film promised “paradigm shifting physical evidence” about extraterrestrial life.

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However, the documentary also included the findings as presented by immunologist Gary Nolan, who worked at Stanford University at the time. Greer had given the Palo Alto-based scientist samples of the Atacama skeleton’s bone marrow. Nolan and his team used the sample to sequence the creature’s genetic code.

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At that time, the team found that the Atacama skeleton had the genetic make-up of a human being. However, Nolan could not explain why the remains looked so unlike a normal baby’s frame. It would take more research to answer that question. And until then, believers in extraterrestrial life maintained their belief in the strange figure’s otherworldly origins.

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Greer essentially refused to be taken in by Nolan’s findings, as could be seen when he spoke to National Geographic. In fact, he implied to the magazine that the Atacama skeleton didn’t fit the mold of a person. He countered, “We don’t know what it is, but it most certainly is not a deformed human.”

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And other findings did raise questions about the Atacama skeleton’s backstory. A radiologist studied images of the figure’s bones and noted that they seemed as mature as those of a six-year-old child. That was a particularly strange thing to discover, considering that the being had the measurements of a fetus.

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However, Nolan’s studies into the Atacama skeleton settled the score once and for all in 2018. In that year, he and his team published their findings of a second study of the remains. This time, they tried to figure out how a human could emerge from the womb looking like the Chilean one did.

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Nolan’s colleagues this time were Stanford University genetic researchers, as well as a computational biology group from the University of California, San Francisco. Together, they looked at the Atacama skeleton’s genome, or its complete sequence of DNA. You see, every human cell with a nucleus contains that being’s particular genome, more than three billion pairs of DNA.

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What Nolan’s team found was that they were, indeed, dealing with the skeleton of a human being. But the Atacama remains had an incredibly unique genome – seven of the being’s genes had mutations. More specifically, each of these genes were associated with growth, which explained why the body looked the way that it did.

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These genetic mutations ensured that the Atacama skeleton looked physically different from other human remains. And Nolan’s team’s findings also made sense of the maturity of the bones – the seven alterations promoted swift bone development. So, they could finally explain why the human skeleton appeared to be something from another planet.

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But, of course, the DNA had confirmed that the Atacama skeleton belonged to a human – more specifically, to a baby girl. Nolan and the rest of the scientists theorized that her mother delivered her stillborn, or that she passed away shortly after being born. That would explain her careful burial in a leather pouch, too.

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The testing also revealed that the Atacama skeleton – nicknamed Ata – likely died relatively recently, approximately 40 years before Nolan’s team examined the remains. As such, Nolan and the rest of the scientists hoped that their discoveries would end the debate over the body. That way, she could be returned to rest where she had been buried four decades ago.

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Stony Brook University Medical Center emeritus professor William Jungers spoke to National Geographic in 2018 on the publicity surrounding the Atacama skeleton. The anatomist and paleoanthropologist argued, “The alien hype was silly pseudoscience promoted for media attention. This paper puts that nonsense and poor little Ata to bed.”

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In a broader sense, the Atacama skeleton showed how genetic disorders – and the resulting physical abnormalities – can confuse archaeologists and even other scientists. Ata is only one example of this. In the past, for instance, small creatures uncovered in the early 2000s in Indonesia were called “hobbits” for their small stature.

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Since their discovery, the so-called hobbits have sparked a major debate amongst scientists. Are the creatures an unknown species of human? Or could they perhaps be short Homo sapiens with an unusual genetic makeup? Fowzan Alkuraya said the Atacama skeleton study gave new perspective to this and other controversies. The geneticist explained, “This paper serves as a reminder about the exotic nature of many genetic disorders.”

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Of course, even genetic testing won’t end all debates – and the Atacama skeleton is proof of that. Alkuraya, for one, believed that only two of the girl’s genetic mutations led to her abnormally formed bones. Meanwhile, Nolan felt that the combination led to her untimely end. He said, “That poor child unfortunately rolled the dice seven times snake eyes.”

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But neither Nolan nor Alkuraya can ever truly be proven right or wrong, most likely. After all, researchers can’t pinpoint which genetic mutations had caused the little girl’s unique symptoms without samples of her family’s DNA. With this information from her mother or father, they could see if they, too, exhibited similar traits.

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Of course, even the same mutations might have looked different in the Atacama skeleton’s parents. They had lived and matured to the point where they could conceive a baby, after all. As such, it’s possible that they lived with the same DNA mutations, but without exhibiting any harmful side effects.

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What Nolan did suspect about the Atacama skeleton’s parents was that they – or perhaps other relatives – seemed to have cared for the ill-fated child. Indeed, they carefully buried her in the Chilean desert. The study leader said, “They didn’t just throw it away. Somebody thought it was important. It was their child.”

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The Atacama skeleton’s end was likely devastating. As Nolan told The Guardian in 2018, “She was so badly malformed as to be unable to feed. In her condition, she would have ended up in the neonatal ICU, but given where the specimen was found, such things were simply not available.” As such, she probably lost her life shortly after it began.

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Knowing all of this should end the debate about the Atacama skeleton’s background. Nolan continued, “While this started as a story about aliens, and went international, it’s really a story of a human tragedy. A woman had a malformed baby, it was preserved in a manner and then ‘hocked’ or sold as a strange artifact. It turns out to be human, with a fascinating genetic story from which we might learn something important to help others. May she rest in peace.”

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On that note, Nolan did highlight how some good could come from the tragedy. Indeed, the Atacama skeleton’s strange bone structure could be a resource to experts in the future. He explained, “Understanding the process might allow us to develop therapies or drugs that drive bone development for people in, say, catastrophic car crashes.”

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But the Atacama skeleton doesn’t have to sit in a lab for this to happen. Instead, Nolan said, “I don’t think that people should be trafficking in human bodies and claiming they’re aliens for the sake of monetary advantage.” He and others hope that Ata will be returned to rest where she was found – in the middle of Chile’s Atacama Desert.

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