The 'Alien' Mummy Is of Course Human—And Yet, Still Unusual

Emery Smith
Emery Smith

Ata has never been an alien, but she's always been an enigma. Discovered in 2003 in a leather pouch near an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert, the tiny, 6-inch mummy's unusual features—including a narrow, sloped head, angled eyes, missing ribs, and oddly dense bones—had both the “It's aliens!” crowd and paleopathologists intrigued. Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has completed a deep genomic analysis that reveals why Ata looks as she does.

As they lay out in a paper published this week in Genome Research, the researchers found a host of genetic mutations that doomed the fetus—some of which have never been seen before.

Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan first analyzed Ata back in 2012; the mummy had been purchased by a Spanish businessman and studied by a doctor named Steven Greer, who made her a star of his UFO/ET conspiracy movie Sirius. Nolan was also given a sample of her bone marrow; his DNA analysis confirmed she was, of course, human. But Nolan's study, published in the journal Science, also found something very odd: Though she was just 6 inches long when she died—a typical size for a midterm fetus—her bones appeared to be 6 to 8 years old. This did not lead Nolan to hypothesize an alien origin for Ata, but to infer that she may have had a rare bone disorder.

The current analysis confirmed that interpretation. The researchers found 40 mutations in several genes that govern bone development; these mutations have been linked to "diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia)," they write. The latter is commonly known as dwarfism. Some of these mutations are linked to conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and Kabuki syndrome, which causes a range of physical deformities and cognitive issues. Other mutations known to cause disease had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders until being discovered in Ata.

scientist measures the the 6-inch-long mummy called Ata, which is not an alien
Emery Smith

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations … it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," they write. "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."

Though the researchers haven't identified the exact age of Ata's remains, they're estimated to be less than 500 years old (and potentially as young as 40 years old). Genomic analysis also confirms that Ata is very much not only an Earthling, but a local; her DNA is a nearest match to three individuals from the Chilote people of Chile.

In a press statement, study co-lead Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UC-San Francisco, stressed the potential applications of the study to genetic disorders. "For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom. It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy," Butte said. "We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders."

How the T. Rex at the American Museum of Natural History Became an Icon

J.M. Luijt, Wikimedia Commons //  CC BY-SA 2.5 nl
J.M. Luijt, Wikimedia Commons //  CC BY-SA 2.5 nl

When asked to think of a Tyrannosaurus rex, you may picture the dinosaur from the original King Kong (1933), the famous vintage illustration by Charles Knight, or perhaps the sinister fossil gracing the poster for Jurassic Park (1993). Each of these pop culture depictions of T. Rex was inspired by a single specimen: A skeleton on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City dubbed AMNH 5027.

In the video below, the AMNH explains how their fossil became the most iconic T. Rex—and therefore the most iconic dinosaur—in history. From 1915 to about 1940, it was the only the mounted T. Rex skeleton on display to the public. That means that most movies created in the early 20th century featuring a T. Rex—including The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918), King Kong, and Fantasia (1940)—were either directly or indirectly inspired by the museum's specimen. AMNH 5027 was incorrectly displayed standing upright with its tail on the ground for decades, which is why so many early depictions of the dinosaur in pop culture show it with the same posture.

The fossil's influence on the world isn't limited to early 20th century cinema. When brainstorming ideas for Jurassic Park's book cover, designer Chip Kidd went to the American Museum of Natural History for inspiration. He used AMNH 5027 as the model for one of the most iconic book jackets ever made. The design was repurposed in the posters for Jurassic Park the movie, and the rex's silhouette has since appeared on countless toys, T-shirts, and other merchandise.

The image has become synonymous with the species, but there's one small detail that's unique to AMNH 5027. The dinosaur in the Jurassic Park artwork has a small bump on the inside of its skull. This bump formed when a bone in the original specimen got pushed out of place during fossilization, and today it's a distinct feature that makes its profile instantly recognizable.

To learn more about the huge impact AMNH 5027 has had in the last century or so of its 65 million years on Earth, check out the video below.

A Powerful Storm Dislodged a Cargo Ship That’s Been Stuck on Niagara Falls for 101 Years

Niagara Parks, YouTube
Niagara Parks, YouTube

It was a dark and stormy night at Niagara Falls this past Halloween—so stormy, in fact, that a cargo ship was dislodged from where it had been stuck for 101 years.

On August 6, 1918, the iron scow—a flat-bottomed cargo vessel—got detached from its tugboat and began a steady, terrifying drift toward the edge of Horseshoe Falls. According to Ontario's Niagara Parks Commission, the two crewmen aboard, Gustav Lofberg and James Harris, opened the dumping doors, flooding the bottom compartments with enough water to slow the ship.

The scow soon ran into some rocks, saving the men from certain death but simultaneously stranding them in the middle of the perilous upper rapids. During the ensuing rescue mission, a breeches buoy—a sling attached to a pulley—was fastened to ropes, which a cannon shot out to the scow.

Progress came to a grinding halt when the ropes got twisted, and Ontario riverman and World War I veteran William “Red” Hill Sr. volunteered to swim out to the buoy and untangle the lines. He succeeded on his second attempt, and the two men were pulled to safety by the following morning.

The scow, on the other hand, spent the next century lodged among the rocks. According to USA Today, the Halloween storm was so severe that the ship escaped its craggy prison and sped downriver. It ran aground again just 150 feet from its original location.

Niagara Parks posted a video of the scow on Twitter on Friday, explaining that the badly deteriorated scow is now flipped on its side.

“It could be stuck there for days, or it could be stuck there for years,” Jim Hill, the Niagara Parks Commission’s senior manager of heritage, says in the video. “It’s anyone’s guess.”

The story of the iron scow might not be the only thing you didn’t know about Niagara Falls; dive into 11 more fascinating facts here.

[h/t USA Today]

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