Six-inch mummy

Nearly two decades ago, the rumors began: In the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, someone had discovered a tiny mummified alien.

An amateur collector exploring a ghost town was said to have come across a white cloth in a leather pouch. Unwrapping it, he found a six-inch-long skeleton.

Despite its size, the skeleton was remarkably complete. It even had hardened teeth. And yet there were striking anomalies: it had ten ribs instead of the usual 12, giant eye sockets and a long skull that ended in a point.

Ata, as the remains came to be known, ended up in a private collection, but the rumors continued, fueled in part by a U.F.O. documentary in 2013 that featured the skeleton. On Thursday, a team of scientists presented a very different explanation for Ata — one without aliens, but intriguing in its own way.

Ata’s bones contain DNA that not only shows she was human, but that she belonged to the local population. What’s more, the researchers identified in her DNA a group of mutations in genes related to bone development.   — NYTimes article

The body was mummified just a few decades ago.  Most skin is still there.  Internal organs are identifiable.

This is a unique specimen, of unique interest.  I’m sure there are dozens of labs around the world that would leap at the opportunity to study it.  But one lab at Stanford has held onto this specimen for 5 years before publishing anything or even issuing a press release.

What I find suspicious is that the explanation they have put forward is the most conventional, and that it is taken as “Science has spoken!”  There is only one explanation, and it is fantastically improbable, but it has been selected for us from among many other fantastically improbable explanations.  Science Daily tells exactly the same story as NYTimes.

Sanchita Bhattacharya, a researcher in Dr. Butte’s lab, searched for mutations in Ata’s DNA and identified 2.7 million variants throughout the genome. She whittled this list to 54 rare mutations that could potentially shut down the gene in which they were located.

Here’s the journal article.  Their analysis begins with the assumption that the specimen is human, and doesn’t consider other possibilities.  Their conclusion involves a co-occurrence of many rare mutations.   They attribute the large amount of DNA that doesn’t match human to DNA damage that has occurred in the mummy.  But full genomes have been extracted from much older samples than this one.  Damage can be differentiated from genome variation because damage is different from one cell to the next, whereas variation is consistent.

My  hope is that this is the beginning of an open-ended scientific discussion, and that many labs around the world have a chance to do their own analysis.

— JJM

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