What We Owe to a Girl Called Ata

The mummified skeleton found in Chile’s Atacama Desert
Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write together as Kalpish Ratna. They are working on a biography of Garcia d’Orta
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Ata means more than the past. She might be our future

ABOUT 20 YEARS ago, a tiny mummified skeleton was found packaged in a leather pouch in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Six inches in length, it had a peculiar head. The skull was long and flattened, rather like a tower—justifying its medical label ‘turricephaly.’ A photograph of it made its way into the public domain as one of ‘extraterrestrial’ remains, unless proven otherwise.

We have such proof now. The skeleton’s DNA is as solidly human as yours or mine. Five hundred years ago, this was a girl. We know she had genetic defects that are now being linked to her bizarre appearance. She has been named Ata, for the desert. We know not how old she was when she died, or indeed if she lived at all—she may have been stillborn. One thing is certain. She was no extraterrestrial.

Ata means more than the past. She might be our future. That possibility compels us to look wider for context, and much closer for fact.

The Atacama is the driest desert on our planet. It has been arid for longer than three million years, and surprisingly, also has a very long history of human habitation. The earliest Atacamenos, the Chinchorro, arrived 9,000 years ago, and they have left us a dazzling record of their lives. They mummified all their dead. Discovering these mummies in our time has helped us understand more than a forgotten civilisation.

The human body is the only reliable witness to change. Tracking down signs of disease in ancient remains is a dependable way of recording events.

The Chinchorro lived off fish. Later, they took to agriculture. This change in diet is recorded as skeletal changes of scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency). Why did they switch from a rich marine diet to a skimpy agrarian one in an arid land?

The answer lies in the ocean.

ENSO (El Niño–Southern Oscillation) events became more frequent, and this led to a loss of marine life.

Late Chinchorro skeletons also bear signs of bone infection. This correlates with a change in funerary practice. They stopped dissecting and stuffing corpses, and relied entirely on the elements to mummify their sacred dead.

These mummies are relevant to Ata’s story for one important detail: the Chinchorro revered the beauty of the human form in all its imperfections. A thousand years later, the Inca, a new civilisation that merged together many Andean cultures, continued the practice of natural mummification in the Atacama. When the Spaniards looted and ravaged the Inca Empire, they noticed a strange custom. The Inca ‘bound’ the heads of their babies so that they would grow up with misshapen skulls. It was considered a mark of beauty and distinction.

Between the end of the Chinchorro culture—which celebrated human beauty for what it was—and the start of the Inca custom of deforming the infant skull, something occurred to foster this change of ideals. What was it?

Inca burials were of great interest in the early 19th century when Europe was consolidating a universal caste system—the idea of race.

In August 1842, the New York Lancet carried this illuminating paragraph: ‘Peru appears to have been at different times peopled by two nations of differently formed crania, one of whom is perhaps extinct.’ This view was rapidly revised, as the deformed skulls were recognised as artifice, not nature. If custom mimicked the ideal, what was the prototype?

In our lifetime, there are other distractions. The Atacama Desert has more than 500 geoglyphs visible from space. Peculiar skulls and landing strips for giant aircraft? Aliens? Even without Erich von Däniken, Indiana Jones and Fox Mulder, tiny mummified Ata with her peculiar skull could only be an extraterrestrial.

In December 2015, obstetricians and paediatricians in Brazil noticed a sudden increase in the number of babies born with small deformed heads. These were all children of women who had suffered from Zika Virus infection during their pregnancy.

Zika Virus is carried by our commonest mosquito—Aëdes aegypti. Zika Fever is easily missed. It is a mild illness with a barely noticeable rash. These facts compelled me to track the Zika pandemic through the next two years. It became evident that the outbreaks began in areas of urbanisation after deforestation, a route one can trace historically.

Could artificial cranial deformation be a cultural memory of an epidemic which left survivors with misshapen heads?

The Chinchorro civilisation collapsed when it turned agrarian. Agriculture would have meant the clearing of natural vegetation for cultivation—always the genesis of mosquito- borne diseases. The Atacameno reverence for odd-shaped heads began after this event.

Ata’s skeleton is 500 years old. It dates to the genocide that colonised the Americas. As cities were razed and forests burned, the devastation left behind a ravaged land, ripe for a mosquito- borne epidemics. Was Ata a victim of intrauterine infection, perhaps by Zika Virus?

The present pandemic began in a city whose expansion devours the Brazilian rainforest and dislocates a sylvan population.

Did this happen in Ata’s time too?

(Kalpish Ratna is the author of The Secret Life of Zika Virus)