Category Archives: CHILE

A tsunami wiped out ancient communities in the Atacama Desert 3,800 years ago

A tsunami wiped out ancient communities in the Atacama Desert 3,800 years ago

A recent study of geological deposits and archaeological remains has identified a massive earthquake and tsunami that wiped out communities along the coastline of Chile’s the Atacama Desert around 3,800 years ago. Studying the ancient disaster—and people’s responses to it—could help with modern hazard planning along the seismically active coast.

A long-forgotten disaster

Broken walls and toppled stones reveal the calamity that struck Zapatero, an ancient community in what’s now northern Chile, about 4,000 years ago. The people who lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert 5,700 to 4,000 years ago built villages of small stone houses atop massive piles of shells (Zapatero’s shell-filled midden is two meters deep and spans six square kilometres). Usually, these houses stood adjacent to each other, opening onto inner patios. People buried their dead beneath the houses’ floors. The cement floors were made from algae ash, seawater, and shells—the same material that held the stone walls together.

But stones and mortar failed in the face of the ocean’s power. One house at Zapatero stands in ruins, with the stones from its walls toppled inland as if struck by a giant wave. Another lies with its stones scattered back toward the sea, in exactly the pattern you’d expect from “strong currents associated with tsunami backwash,” University of Chile archaeologist Diego Salazar and his colleagues say. In a third house, the floors are covered in a layer of washed-in sand laden with the remains of marine algae and echinoderm spines, mingled with chunks of rock, shells, and sediment ripped up from the ground.

A tsunami wiped out ancient communities in the Atacama Desert 3,800 years ago

Elsewhere on the Zapatero midden, Salazar and his colleagues found similar layers of sand and ripped-up ground left behind by an ancient tsunami, along with channels gouged out by the tsunami’s strong, sudden current. When the archaeologists radiocarbon-dated shells from these layers, they found that many of the shells were actually older than the ones in undisturbed layers underneath—evidence that something had churned up the ground and ripped these older shells from their resting places to deposit them on the surface.

The same story is written in ruins and sediment at other archaeological sites along a several-hundred-kilometre stretch of the Atacama coastline. In recent surveys, Salazar and his colleagues also found geological evidence of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the region: layers of sandy, shell-laden seafloor sediment lifted several meters above sea level by seismic upheaval. The researchers radiocarbon-dated shells in these uplifted chunks of ancient coastline, along with shells and charcoal in the layers just above and below the tsunami deposits, and narrowed the date of the ancient disaster to around 3,800 years ago, give or take a century or two.

Combined, the geological and archaeological evidence points to a natural disaster of epic proportions: a rupture along a 1,000-kilometer stretch of the fault system where the Nazca Plate is slowly sliding under the South American Plate. The estimated magnitude 9.5 megathrust earthquake would have shoved parts of the coastline upward and triggered a tsunami 19 to 20 meters high along a huge stretch of the Chilean coast (and all the way across the Pacific in New Zealand, where geologists have also found deposits from a tsunami of about the same age).

The combined earthquake and tsunami struck a devastating blow for ancient people who lived close to the Pacific Ocean with a hyperarid desert at their backs. Archaeological evidence reveals that people abandoned the coast for centuries after the disaster.

Abandoned villages and scattered camps

The Atacama Desert is a hard place to live. It’s the driest desert in the world outside Antarctica, with less than 1 millimetre of rain a year. But people have lived—and thrived—here for at least 12,000 years. In part, they’ve pulled it off by turning to the sea.

Just offshore, the Humboldt Current wells up with nutrient-rich water, fueling a rich, teeming coastal ecosystem that’s still one of the world’s most productive fisheries. Thanks to the long, slow tectonic collision between the Nazca Plate and the South American Plate, the region is also fraught with seismic hazards. But for millennia, people traded that sporadic, long-term risk for the riches of the ocean. They left behind archaeological evidence of their presence and their adaptations to life in this unique environment.

But in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami 3,800 years ago, people deserted the settlements of shell middens and stone houses that dotted the Atacama coast. The sea has always been vital to life in the Atacama, but it’s clear that, for centuries, no one wanted to live too close.

Above the layers of sand and debris from the waves, mixed with toppled walls, there’s little or no trace of human activity at sites like Zapatero. The only evidence speaks of very short visits: small hearths and a sparse scattering of artefacts lying atop flood debris and broken stone walls. When people had to return to the ruins of their ancestors, they clearly didn’t want to stay long.

Archaeologists can see the wariness in the abandoned buildings and short-lived camps at places like Zapatero, but they can also read it in larger-scale changes that span the whole north Chilean coast. In one 100-kilometer stretch near Taltal, an area of northern Chile rich in archaeological sites, a survey revealed a 65 per cent decrease in the number of settlements after around 3,800 years ago.

Northeast view of the Zapatero archaeological in the Taltal region of northern Chile.

That date marks not only the estimated arrival of the tsunami, but the boundary between two archaeologically distinct cultures, Archaic IV (5,700 to 4,000 years ago) and Archaic V. After that boundary, settlements are scarcer, and both homes and cemeteries tend to be farther inland and on higher ground. Close to shore, what settlements there are get smaller, with fewer artifacts left buried and scattered.

Ancient mine gets the shaft

Even very important resources, like the iron oxide mine at San Ramón, were abandoned.

“Iron oxide was used as a pigment for several reasons, including the realization of pictures on stones that can be found in several sites along this region of the coastal Atacama Desert,” University of Chile geologist Gabriel Easton, a co-author of the recent study, tells Ars. These pigments appear to have been important for local communities and were involved in their rites and ceremonies.

A 3 centimetre-wide vertical crack in the wall of the mine probably dates to the earthquake 3,800 years ago, and after that, work here seems to have stopped. “The San Ramón 15 archaeological site constitutes one of the most ancient [pieces of] evidence of mining activity in the Americas, exploited since 12,000 years ago, and abandoned after around 4,000 years ago, most possibly because of the effects caused by the earthquake in the region,” Easton tells Ars.

But this is still a seismically active zone, and the risk of a major earthquake or tsunami is real. That’s why Salazar and his colleagues say the 3,800-year-old disaster they’ve revealed is important not just to our understanding of the past but our plans for the future. Most of the hazard assessments for coastal northern Chile are based on historical data that goes back just a few centuries, but the fault system in the region runs on a much larger temporal scale. Data about ancient quakes and tsunamis like the one that reshaped society here 3,800 years ago could offer a longer-term perspective to hazard planners.

Unfortunately, the Indigenous people who still live in the Atacama, including the Changos (recently recognized by the Chilean government after years of effort) lost much of their history, traditional culture, and lore to the ravages of European conquest, epidemics, and centuries of marginalization. But learning how their ancestors responded and adapted could help all of us prepare to face the next disaster.

According to Salazar and his colleagues, the aftermath of the ancient Atacama disaster is a reminder that resilience doesn’t mean a “return to the pre-shock state” but rather “the capacity of human communities to absorb changes… allowing for their long-term adaptation.”

7,000-Year-Old Evidence of Geese Domestication Found in China

7,000-Year-Old Evidence of Geese Domestication Found in China

A team of researchers affiliated with multiple institutions in Japan and China has found evidence of goose domestication in China approximately 7,000 years ago.

Modern Chinese domestic geese (Anser cygnoides domesticus).

In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes their study of goose bones found at Tianluoshan—a dig site in east China.

Over the past several years, scientists have debated the timeline of the domestication of birds—most have suggested that chickens, which are believed to have once been a type of junglefowl, were the first to be domesticated, though there is still much debate about when it first occurred.

Estimates have ranged from five to ten thousand years ago. In this new effort, the researchers have found evidence of the domestication of wild geese, as far back as 7,000 years ago.

The team found goose bones at the Tianluoshan site and used radiocarbon dating to find out how old they are.

They have also studied the bones in other ways to learn more about their characteristics, such as the age of the birds at death.

The bones were found at what had once been a settlement of stone-age people who were both hunter/gatherers and farmers—they grew rice to supplement their foraging efforts.

The researchers found 232 goose bones at the site, four of which were from goslings ranging from 8 to 16 weeks old.

They suggest this shows the birds were hatched near the site because it is believed that wild geese did not live in that area at the time the birds were alive.

They also found evidence suggesting that the birds had been locally bred based on chemicals in their bones that likely came from a local water source. And all of the adults were approximately the same size, which indicates captive breeding.

7,000-Year-Old Evidence of Geese Domestication Found in China
Goose bones were found at Tianluoshan, China.

The researchers suggest that the evidence they found provides strong evidence for the domestication of geese in China nearly 7,000 years ago.

A finding that could mean that geese were the first birds to be domesticated.

New Study Suggests Fisherman Drowned Some 5,000 Years Ago

New Study Suggests Fisherman Drowned Some 5,000 Years Ago

A new study has confirmed saltwater drowning as the cause of death for a Neolithic man whose remains were found in a mass grave on the coast of Northern Chile. The method developed to solve the 5000-year-old cold case opens up new possibilities for assessing the remains of our prehistoric ancestors.

New Study Suggests Fisherman Drowned Some 5,000 Years Ago
The Neolithic fisherman in the burial site

The scientists believe it will help archaeologists understand more about past civilisations in coastal regions and the human stories behind the remains they discover.

Modern forensics can confirm drowning as the cause of death in recent victims by testing for diatoms inside the bones of the victims. Diatoms are a group of algae found in oceans, freshwater and soils. If they are found inside the bones of victims’ bodies, it is likely that they drowned.

This is because if they had died before entering the water, they would not have swallowed any saltwater. The test has never been successfully tried to determine drowning in saltwater on prehistoric human remains, until now.

In addition to the diatom test, the research team, led by the University of Southampton, carried out a wide-ranging microscopic analysis of bone marrow extracted from a man found in a 5000-year-old mass burial site.

This allowed them to search for a greater range of microscopic particles that could provide more insight into the cause of his death.

The results, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, found a variety of marine particles that suggested he drowned in saltwater. These particles included fossilised algae, parasite eggs and sediment, which would not have been detected by the standard diatom test.

Professor James Goff of the University of Southampton, who led the study said, “mass burials have often been necessary after natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods or large storms.

However, we know very little about whether prehistoric mass burial sites near coastlines could be the result of natural disasters or other causes such as war, famine and disease. This gave us our light bulb moment of developing an enhanced version of a modern forensic test to use on ancient bones.”

After scanning archaeological papers for records of mass burial sites near coastlines, Prof Goff and his team worked with Prof Pedro Andrade of the Universidad de Concepción in Chile.

Prof Andrade had previously studied an archaeological site known as Copaca 1, 30 kilometres south of Tocopilla on the Chilean coastline. The site area contains a grave with three well-preserved skeletons.

The individual they studied was a male hunter-gather aged between 35 and 45. The condition of his bones suggested he was a fisherman as there were signs of frequent harpooning, rowing and harvesting of shellfish.

This made him the ideal candidate to study for signs of drowning and for evidence of the event that led to his death.

Genevieve Cain, Prof Pedro Andrade and the fisherman

“By looking at what we found in his bone marrow, we know that he drowned in shallow saltwater,” Prof Goff continued. “We could see that the poor man swallowed sediment in his final moments and sediment does not tend to float around in sufficient concentrations in deeper waters.”

Based on their initial findings, the team believe that he died in a marine accident rather than in a major catastrophic event. This is partly because the bones of the others he was buried with did not contain marine particles so it is unlikely they all died by saltwater drowning.

The team advise they could shed more light on this by testing other human remains on the site and studying geological records for evidence of natural disasters in the area.

Most importantly, scientists believe this new technique can be used for ancient mass burial sites around the world to get a richer picture of the lives of people in coastal communities throughout history.

“In taking more time over the forensic technique and testing for a broader range of beasties inside the prehistoric bones, we’ve cracked open a whole new way to do things,” Prof Goff continued. “This can help us understand much more about how tough it was living by the coast in pre-historic days – and how people there were affected by catastrophic events, just as we are today.”

“There are many coastal mass burial sites around the world where excellent archaeological studies have been carried out but the fundamental question of what caused so many deaths have not been addressed. Now we can take this new technique out around the world and potentially re-write prehistory.”

Prof James Goff and the fisherman

Brutalised skeletons of ancient farmers who ‘battered each other to death in world’s DRIEST desert’ found

Brutalised skeletons of ancient farmers who ‘battered each other to death in world’s DRIEST desert’ found

Grisly human remains of ancient farmers who worked in one of the world’s driest deserts have been examined as part of a new study. The battered skeletons were found in the Atacama Desert in modern-day Chile and date back 3,000 years.

Lethal wounds could be seen on some of the skulls

The brutal conditions of their dry workplace weren’t the only thing they had to deal with though.

The skeletons show how the farmers lived in a time of social tension that led to violence and murder.

The researchers write in their study: “The emergence of elites and social inequality fostered interpersonal and inter- and intra-group violence associated with the defence of resources, socio-economic investments, and other cultural concerns.

“This study evaluated violence among the first horticulturalists in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile during the Neolithic transition between 1000 BCE – 600 CE. Furthermore, it analyzed trauma caused by interpersonal violence using a sample of 194 individuals.”

The 194 skeletons investigated were all adult and came from ancient cemeteries in the desert’s Azapa Valley.

This was said to be one of the richest and most fertile valleys that the ancient farmers could have been based in.

The skeletons are creepily well preserved because of the dry conditions and some even have soft tissue and hair.

Around 21% of the skeletons also showed evidence of “interpersonal violence”.

This includes skull holes and fractures that would have caused extreme pain.

Around 10% likely died from lethal blows.

Weapons like maces, sticks and arrows could have caused the trauma.

The researchers write: “Some individuals exhibited severe high impact fractures of the cranium that caused massive destruction of the face and neurocranium, with craniofacial disjunction and outflow of brain mass.”

The fights could have been over land, water and resources.

The full study findings can be found in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

The farmers could have been fighting over land and resources
194 skeletons were studied for the research

In other archaeology news, a ship that sank after it was hit by gigantic stone blocks following an earthquake 2,200 years ago has been found in Egypt.

A new analysis of the remains of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh has revealed he may have been brutally murdered on the battlefield.

And, human skeletons have been discovered on a 1717 pirate shipwreck just off the coast of Cape Cod in the US.

Modern crocodile’s ‘grandfather,’ 150 million years old, discovered in Chile fossil

Modern crocodile’s ‘grandfather,’ 150 million years old, discovered in Chile fossil

A 150-million-year-old fossilized skeleton discovered in the mountains of southern Chile was determined to be the ancestor of the modern crocodile, the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences announced on Friday.

Fossilized bones of the Burkesuchus mallingrandensis are pictured, in Buenos Aires

The species, named Burkesuchus mallingrandensis, was found in 2014 in an Andean fossil deposit near the Patagonian town of Mallin Grande by Argentine and Chilean researchers. Since then it has been analyzed at the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences (MACN) in Buenos Aires.

The specimen is a “grandfather” of current crocodiles and should allow scientists to understand how they evolved, the museum said.

Technicians Marcelo Isasi, Marcela Milani, and palaeontologist Nicolas Chimento work on the excavation of pieces of the Burkesuchus mallingrandensis, in the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia

Scientists believe the fossil will help them understand how these reptiles went from being terrestrial to aquatic. Along with other fossils, the discovery supports the idea that South America was the cradle of evolution for crocodiles.

About 200 million years ago “crocodiles were smaller and did not live in water. Palaeontologists always wanted to know what that transition was like,” Federico Agnolin, who found the specimen, told Reuters.

“What Burkesuchus shows is a series of unique traits, which no other crocodile has because they were the first that began to get into the water, into freshwater,” Agnolin said.

Modern crocodile's 'grandfather,' 150 million years old, discovered in Chile fossil
Palaeontologist Fernando Novas holds the fossil skull of the Burkesuchus mallingrandensis

According to the MACN, crocodiles appeared at the beginning of the Jurassic period, around the time of the first dinosaurs.

In a few million years they got into the water, thanks to the existence of warm and shallow seas. South America is known for its richness in marine crocodile fossils.

Mummified Parrots Found In The Atacama Desert Transported Hundreds Of Miles While Alive

Mummified Parrots Found In The Atacama Desert Transported Hundreds Of Miles While Alive

The more we delve into Chile’s desolate Atacama Desert, the more we discover, Phenomena both mystifying and wonderful, occasionally bordering on alien. But in this incredibly dry place, it wasn’t just the climate that was unforgiving. Its ancient human inhabitants, making do in a parched place not best suited to hosting them, traded in whatever they could get their hands on.

Sometimes, it seems, that was the brilliant feathers of colourful birds brought unceremoniously to a desert they didn’t belong to, but were destined to be buried within. What we consider acceptable interactions with animals under our care was very different back then, says anthropological archaeologist Jose Capriles from Pennsylvania State University.

“Some of these birds did not live a happy life. They were kept to produce feathers and their feathers were plucked out as soon as they grew in.” Capriles is something of a specialist when it comes to discovering the exotic oddities of pre-Columbian American culture.

This is how the mummified macaws would’ve looked when they were alive.

This time, his mother – Eliana Flores Bedregal, an ornithologist by profession – came along for the ride, co-authoring a new study examining the life and death of over two-dozen mummified and partially mummified parrots found within the Atacama Desert.

In total, at least six species of parrots originally recovered from five of the desert’s archaeological sites were studied in the research, with the remains variously dating from between 1100 to 1450 CE.

Mummified Parrots Found In The Atacama Desert Transported Hundreds Of Miles While Alive
Researchers identified a mummified Blue-Fronted Amazon parrot, recovered from an ancient cemetery in the Atacama Desert.

“The feathers of tropical birds were one of the most significant symbols of economic, social, and sacred status in the pre-Columbian Americas,” the authors write in their study.

In the Andes, finely produced clothing and textiles containing multicoloured feathers of tropical parrots materialized power, prestige, and distinction and were particularly prized by political and religious elites. Behind the folds of this marvellous drapery, the colourful birds likely lived a miserable existence in captivity, far from the Amazonian rainforests that were once their home.

Sometimes, the feathers were plucked elsewhere and imported into the Andes in special containers, but the remains of the 27 parrots and macaws analyzed here suggest many other birds were specifically brought to the desert for their vibrant plumage.

The feather trade in the region dates back much longer than this, at least to the Chinchorro mummies of around 5050 BCE. Thousands of years later, feathers were still a cherished feature used in garments, hats, headdresses, and other ornaments.

Most of the mummified birds examined in the new study were originally recovered from an archaeological site called Pica 8, located close to an oasis community within the Atacama Desert that still exists today.

Mummified scarlet macaw.

Once upon a time, though, the people here buried their birds alongside themselves.

“Most birds were placed in direct association with human burials,” the researchers write, noting the parrots’ tails were often removed.

Sometimes the animals were positioned in elaborate stances, with beaks opened and tongues sticking out, perhaps tied to ritualistic practices invoking parrots’ ability to mimic human speech. Others had their wings spread as if to forever soar in the afterlife.

During their life on Earth, it seems many had their wings broken and their feet strapped, although the researchers also observe care was taken with some of the animals, with evidence of clipping of their beaks and claws, in addition to healing processes for fractures sustained by the parrots.

“We have absolutely no idea why they were mummified like this,” Capriles says.

“They seem to be eviscerated through their cloaca (a common excretory and reproductive opening), which helped to preserve them. Many times, they were wrapped in textiles or bags.”

What is certain is that it can’t have been easy to get these grounded birds to the desert. Transported by llama caravans, it’s likely the journey from the Amazon would have taken months, the researchers think, although it’s possible some of the birds were procured from regions closer to the desert.

Once there, they were held as valuable pets, treasured for their wondrous palette of feathers, with each enticing shade certain to be stolen.

The Oldest Mummies in The World Are Turning Into Black Slime

The Oldest Mummies in The World Are Turning Into Black Slime

Climate change is converting the world’s oldest mummies into black slime, which were buried more than 7,000 years ago in the arid desert of northern Chile. Increasing humidity has been observed to cause an outbreak of bacteria living on the preserved skin of Chinchorro mummies, according to scientists.

The Oldest Mummies in The World Are Turning Into Black Slime
The preserved skin on the outside of Chinchorro mummies in Arica, northern Chile, have begun to rapidly degrade as bacteria and humid air is turning it into black slime, as can be seen in the photograph above

The bacteria then feeds on the ancient skin, causing it to break down into black slime. Researchers say that rising humidity levels in Arica, Chile, is putting the 120 Chinchorro mummies at the University of Tarapacá’s archaeological museum at risk.

However, they warn that hundreds of other mummies buried just beneath the sandy surface in the valleys throughout the region are also under threat. Professor Marcela Sepulveda, an archaeologist at the University of Tarapacá, said: ‘In the last 10 years, the process has accelerated.

‘It is very important to get more information about what’s causing this and to get the university and national government to do what’s necessary to preserve the Chinchorro mummies for the future.’

The Chinchorro mummies are in some cases nearly 4,000 years older than those found preserved from ancient Egypt. The oldest mummy discovered in the Atacama desert dates to 7020BC while the oldest in Egypt dates to 3,000BC.

However, the practice of preserving the dead with mummification became popular among the Chinchoro around 5,000 BC, with children and babies often being the most elaborately preserved. The Chinchorro were prehistoric people who lived in scattered communities and used fishing to help them survive on the desert coast of Chile and Peru.

It is thought they began preserving their dead though mummification as part of a religious act designed to bridge the world between the living and the dead.

An estimated 282 mummies have now been recovered from the dry, sandy soil in the region, but scientists say there could be hundreds more buried there.

Preserved corpses are often found as the shifting sand exposes their bodies. Arica and the surrounding Atacama Desert is one of the driest places in the world and the town receives less than 0.02 inches of rain a year.

The skin on the head of this Chinchorro mummy at the San Miguel de Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile has begun to break down due to the damage being caused by bacteria growing as humidity in the area increases.

It is this dry climate that has helped preserve the mummies for more than 7,000 years. However, the region has been growing slowly damper in recent years.

Scientists at the University of Tarapacá museum first noticed black slimy patches appearing on the preserved skin of the Chinchorro mummies around ten years ago.

As time has gone on they have degraded at ‘an alarming rate’ as the preserved skin has broken down into black slime.

Researchers at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have now conducted a series of tests to find out what was causing the degradation. They found that bacteria normally found growing on the human skin appeared to become ‘supercharged’ when placed on mummy skin in high humidity.

They found that mummies need to be kept at between 40 per cent and 60 per cent humidity to prevent degradation from occurring. If the humidity falls below this level, acidification could also damage the mummies.

Some of the Chinchorro mummies, like the one above buried in a coffin made from reeds, show highly sophisticated preservation thousands of years before mummification began to be used in ancient Egypt

Museum staff are now fine-tuning the temperature and humidity to help preserve the mummies in their extensive collection. Professor Ralph Mitchell, a biologist at Harvard who led the work, said: ‘We knew the mummies were degrading but nobody understood why.

‘This kind of degradation has never been studied before.

‘With many diseases we encounter, the microbe is in our body, to begin with, but when the environment changes it becomes an opportunist.’

Professor Mitchell and his colleagues are now keen to find ways to help protect the mummies still preserved out in the desert.

“Alien” skeleton found in Chile actually human fetus with a rare bone disorder

“Alien” skeleton found in Chile actually human fetus with a rare bone disorder

Alien? Alien? Primate Subhuman? Reluctant child? Fetus mummified? The Internet shakes at the nature of “Ata,” a bizarre 6-inch skeleton used in a recent UFO documentary. A Stanford University scientist who boldly entered the fray has now put to rest doubts about what species Ata belongs to. But the mystery is not over.

The story began 10 years ago when the diminutive remains were reportedly found in a pouch in a ghost town in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Ata ended up in a private collection in Barcelona; producers of the film Sirius latched onto the bizarre mummy as evidence of alien life.

Last fall, immunologist Garry Nolan, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Proteomics Center for Systems Immunology at Stanford in California, heard about Ata from a friend and contacted the filmmakers, offering to give them a scientific readout on the specimen. They asked him to give it a shot.

Among the apparent abnormalities, Ata sports 10 ribs instead of the usual 12 and a severely misshapen skull. “I asked our neonatal care unit how you would go about analyzing it. Had they seen this kind of syndrome before?” Nolan says. He was directed to pediatric radiologist Ralph Lachman, co-director of the International Skeletal Dysplasia Registry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California.

“He literally wrote the book on pediatric bone disorders,” Nolan says. Lachman was blown away, Nolan recalls: “He said, ‘Wow, this is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.’ “

To study the specimen, Nolan sought clues in Ata’s genome. He initially presumed the specimen was tens or hundreds of thousands of years old—the Atacama Desert may be the driest spot on the planet, so Ata could have been preserved for aeons.

He consulted experts who had extracted DNA from bones of the Denisovans, an Asian relative of European Stone Age Neandertals. It turned out that their protocols weren’t necessary. “The DNA was modern, abundant, and high quality,” he says, indicating that the specimen is probably a few decades old.

To the chagrin of UFO hunters, Ata is decidedly of this world. After mapping more than 500 million reads to a reference human genome, equating to 17.7-fold coverage of the genome, Nolan concluded that Ata “is human, there’s no doubt about it.” Moreover, the specimen’s B2 haplotype—a category of mitochondrial DNA—reveals that its mother was from the west coast of South America: Chile, that is.

Meanwhile, after examining x-rays, Lachman concluded that Aka’s skeletal development, based on the density of the epiphyseal plates of the knees (growth plates at the end of long bones found only in children), surprisingly appears to be equivalent to that of a 6- to 8-year-old child. If that holds up, there are two possibilities, Nolan says. One, a long shot, is that Ata had a severe form of dwarfism, was actually born as a tiny human, and lived until that calendar age.

X-rays show that Ata is no hoax, but its DNA will disappoint UFO buffs.

To test that hypothesis, he will try to extract haemoglobin from the specimen’s bone marrow and compare the relative amounts of fetal versus adult haemoglobin proteins.

The second possibility is that Ata, the size of a 22-week-old fetus, suffered from a severe form of the rare rapid ageing disease, progeria, and died in the womb or after premature birth.

Nolan hasn’t yet turned up hits for genes known to be associated with progeria or dwarfism. He’s stepping up the search for mutations through additional sequencing and casting a wider net.

Another possibility is a teratogen: a birth defect-inducing toxicant along the lines of thalidomide. Nolan plans to analyze tissue using mass spectrometry to look for toxicants or metabolites. But reports of a handful of other Tom Thumb-sized skeletons from Russia and elsewhere have Nolan leaning toward a genetic explanation.

At least one expert has a more prosaic take—but agrees that the specimen is human. “This looks to me like a badly desiccated and mummified human fetus or premature stillbirth,” says William Jungers, a paleoanthropologist and anatomist at Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York.

He notes that “barely ossified and immature elements” of the hands and feet, and the wide-open metopic suture, where the two frontal bones of the skull come together down the middle of the forehead.

“Genetic anomalies are not evident, probably because there aren’t any,” he says. Nolan responds that the rib number and epiphyseal plate densities remain a riddle; while he is open to the fetus hypothesis, he thinks that the jury is still out.

Nolan’s analysis went viral; besieged as he has been by the media circus, he doesn’t regret having gotten involved in debunking a claim of alien life. “I’m thrilled with the outcome,” he says.

Once the analyses are complete, he says, he’ll submit his findings for peer review. The other claim Nolan debunks is that Ata is an elaborate hoax. The x-rays clearly show these are real bones, complete with arterial shadows, he says. “You just couldn’t fake it,” he says, adding, with a laugh, “unless you were an alien.”