When it comes to certain disabilities, there is a common belief that modern times have brought about modern ailments, and this is particularly true in the mental health field as more and more conditions and diagnoses are being made.
But while it may be true that more people are seen with both physical and mental chronic illness, it’s not true that our ancestors were necessarily healthier. Proof of this can be seen in mummies from ancient Egypt with heart disease, and now, in the remains of a young child with Down syndrome.
The skeleton, unearthed in France, belonged to a child estimated to be 5-7 years old and dates back to the 5-6th century. What’s even more interesting is that, judging by the way the child was buried, there may have been no social stigma attached to the condition. The remains were found alongside 94 others, and based on the surrounding graves, it appears the youth was given a normal burial.
According to researchers who published their findings in the International Journal of Paleopathology, while it may be presumptuous to assume cultural values based on burial alone, there is little doubt the child had Down syndrome. When compared to the other child remains, the youth in question had several features in the skull typical for the condition, including thin cranial bones and a short, broad skull.
This is the earliest case of Down syndrome known, and is proof the genetic abnormality has existed throughout history as previously suspected. Evidence of this genetic condition in ancient civilizations, however, has been elusive.
According to the National Down’s Syndrome Society, Down syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21. The additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome, such as low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes, and a single deep crease across the center of the palm. It is important to note, however, that each person with Down syndrome is unique and may possess these characteristics to different degrees, or not at all.
At this time there is no way to know how seriously affected the child discovered in France was. Just because the bone structure suggests Down syndrome, characteristics that may have caused the youth to be stigmatized might not have been apparent. This may be part of the reason the burial site was classified as normal, though experts suggest it is also possible this early community in France did not share the primitive fears associated with disabilities.
Down syndrome was first officially recognized in the 19th century as a medical condition, despite the fact it was alluded to in literature and paintings throughout history. Currently, statistics indicate 1 in every 691 babies is born with Down syndrome in the United States, making it the most common genetic condition in the country.