Published: 2:39 PM 5/21/2013
By Cara Reichard
Alien and UFO enthusiasts were left disappointed again last month, as Professor of Microbiology and Immunology Garry Nolan Ph.D. ’89 P.D.
’89 debunked theories of extraterrestrial origins surrounding a skeleton found in Chile’s Atacama Desert and instead identified it as a humanoid.
The skeleton was featured prominently in the recent documentary “Sirius,” produced by Steven Greer, founder of the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Disclosure Project. The film is based on Greer’s efforts to reveal government cover-ups of UFO sightings and extraterrestrial encounters.
Nolan was given the opportunity to examine the skeleton after contacting the makers of “Sirius.” The skeleton in question is only six inches long and possesses several unusual characteristics, including an abnormally shaped head and an irregular rib count, as it only has 10 ribs while most humans have 12.
The producers agreed to send Nolan pictures of the figure, which Nolan described as “pretty spectacular,” after he offered to provide genomics tools that could examine the skeleton’s DNA.
Though Nolan believed that the Atacama skeleton, called “Ata,” could not possibly belong to an alien, part of his agreement with the filmmakers was to not be “pathologically skeptical” while conducting his research.
“I wouldn’t enter this and at the first sign of humanity throw everything out,” Nolan said. “There were anomalies and they needed to be tracked down.”
Beyond his curiosity in determining the origin of the skeleton, Nolan had personal motives for undertaking the project. When he contacted the film’s producers, Nolan was about to begin the process of setting up his lab for cancer research, which he said would “require sequence analysis of a very similar, very comparable approach.”
“I literally hadn’t touched a pipette for 20 years,” Nolan said. “So it was kind of like, ‘do I still have the hands?’”
Nolan took the pictures provided by the filmmakers to his colleagues in the neonatal care unit, who referred him to Clinical Professor of Pediatric Radiology Ralph Lachman, a specialist in dwarfism.
Lachman runs the International Skeletal Dysplasia Registry, which contains information on about 15,000 different cases of dwarfism worldwide. Despite managing this enormous database, and seeing 700 or 800 cases of dwarfism every year, Lachman was not sure what he was looking at when first saw Ata.
“At that time, we didn’t know if it was an alien,” Lachman said. “It didn’t look, even on the pictures, like a normal human.”
After gathering sufficient DNA from the skeleton, Nolan ran the DNA through an analyzer and compared the sequence with a human reference genome, which he described as “sort of an average of all of the genomes that have been analyzed.”
Nolan said that it was clear that the specimen was human after the genome analysis, though the researchers could still not explain the skeleton’s unusual characteristics.
Upon Lachman’s request, Nolan asked to see X-rays and CT scans taken of the skeleton in Barcelona, where it was stored. The images allowed Lachman to more accurately understand the specimen’s many abnormalities.
One of the most perplexing questions Lachman encountered was the age of specimen at its time of death. Its small size matched roughly that of a 22-week-old fetus, but the high level of calcification observed in the legs suggested it was more likely a child between the ages of five and eight years old.
Lachman subsequently investigated several similar cases of dwarfism throughout history and found several, including a 19th century “circus freak” named Tom Thumb and an Italian woman who was six inches when she was born and 19 inches when she died at age eight or nine.
According to Lachman, another possible explanation for the skeleton’s small size and advanced calcification is natural mummification, a process that would have made the skeleton appear older than it is.
“The mummification process in the Egyptians has produced calcification like this in the intervertebral spaces,” Lachman said. “Natural mummification is probably a process that occurs if you in a very dry desert place. The body is lying there for several years, and it dries out and salts are deposited. That can lead to calcification occurring.”
Both Nolan and Lachman emphasized that their research is not complete, as they proved that the specimen is human but still cannot explain all of its unusual characteristics.
Nolan, who said that the skeleton displays a “rare mutation, if not one-of-a-kind,” has contacted a researcher from Germany in hopes of getting access to similar specimens in order to compare their DNA with Ata’s.
“If I do the sequencing of those as well, we could actually determine the cause of this,” he said. “If it had a similar mutation, similar genes, that would be fantastic; we would be able to sort of solve the mystery.”