Oldest known case of Down’s syndrome discovered

The skeleton of a 5- to 7-year-old child (shown here) who lived in medieval France shows signs of having Down syndrome, the earliest such case in the archaeological record.
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FRI 18 JAN 2019 05:27 PM.

Oldest known case of Down’s syndrome discovered:

The skeleton of a 5- to 7-year-old child (shown here) who lived in medieval France shows signs of having Down syndrome, the earliest such case in the archaeological record.
The skeleton of a 5- to 7-year-old child (shown here) who lived in medieval France shows signs of having Down syndrome, the earliest such case in the archaeological record.

The earliest probable case of Down syndrome in the archaeological record comes from a 5- to 7-year old child who lived in medieval France some 1500 years ago, new research shows.

The child, who is also the youngest example of the condition in the archaeological record, likely was not stigmatized in life, given that the body was treated in a similar way to others buried at the site, researcher say.

Archaeologists originally found the skeleton of the child in 1989, when they excavated it along with 93 other skeletons from a 5th- to 6th-century necropolis located just south of the Abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes in northeastern France.

Researchers had suspected the child may have had Down syndrome, but they had not performed a rigorous analysis to confirm the diagnosis.

So Maïté Rivollat, an archaeologists at the University of Bordeaux, and her colleagues studied the skull of the child, and took a computed tomography (CT) scan of it to understand its internal features.

“Two earlier publication’s just mentioned the possibility of Down syndrome without [conducting] a detailed study. “The [CT] scan was a new possibility to approach the intracranial aspect of that skull.”

An ancient disorder

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder in which a person has an extra copy of chromosome 21.

People born with Down syndrome typically have intellectual disabilities, physical growth delays and certain facial features, including a flat nasal bridge and almond shaped eyes that slant upward.

British physician John Langdon Down 1st described Down syndrome as a unique disorder in 1866. Despite this relatively recent identification of the conditions, paintings and sculptures have depicted Down syndrome for centuries.

For instance, the earliest depiction of Down syndrome may come from Olmec figurines from Mesoamerica that date as far back as 1,500 B.C.,

According to a 2011 study on the history of Down syndromes published in the Journal of Contemporary Anthropology.

In the archaeological record, the oldest probable case of Down syndrome came from a 9 year old child who lived in England sometime between A.D. 700 and 900. (A skeleton from a Native Americans cemetery in California, dating to 5200 B.C. may, in fact, be the earliest archaeological case of Down syndrome, but the proofs is less conclusive, the 2011 study notes.)

A normal life?

The skull of a 5- to 7-year-old child (shown here) who lived in medieval France shows signs of Down syndrome; for instance, the skull was short and broad, and flattened at the base.
The skull of a 5- to 7-year-old child (shown here) who lived in medieval France shows signs of Down syndrome; for instance, the skull was short and broad, and flattened at the base.

To see if the Saint Jean-des-Vignes child really had Down syndrome, Rivollat and her team studied the dimension’s and structure of the childs skull and compared it with the skull’s of 78 other children of similar ages.

Their analysis showed the French child had numerous features indicative of Down syndrome, which the other skulls lacked.

For example, the skull was short and broad, and flattened at the base. In addition, it contained thin cranial bones and certain extra bone pieces.

The child also had some sinus and dental abnormalities, which are not diagnostic of Down syndrome on their own, but are indicative of the disorder when considered along with the other characteristics, the researcher’s point out in their study, published online last month in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

The archaeologist also studied the way in which the child was buried to obtain clues about how he or she was treated in life, something scientists were not able to do with other ancient cases of Down syndrome.

Just like other skeleton’s in the cemetery, the child was placed face up in its tomb, with its head pointing west and feet pointing east, and its hands situated under its pelvis. That is, the childs burial treatment was no different from that of other people in the cemetery, Rivollat said.

“We interpret this as meaning that the child was maybe not stigmatized during life, the 1st time a Down syndrome individual has been so viewed in the context of the ancient community,” the researchers write in their study.


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Jessica Saraceni has been a part of Histecho Since 2018, drawn to the site for its quirky character and through Articles about the Mysteries of earth and human behavior. previously, she was an assistant editor and Research fellow at Archaeology magazine, where she gained an appreciation for the field work. A master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental science from the Center for Archaeological Research, the University of Texas at San Antonio. She enjoys all forms of exercise; reading works by her favorite author, Haruki Murakami; and playing with her sons.