Scientists have discovered the remains of a child in north-eastern France which they believe represents the earliest case of Down’s syndrome in the archeological record. The skeleton belonged to a 5-7 year old and dates back to the 5-6th century AD. Furthermore, from the way that the child was buried, the researchers believe that he/she may not have been stigmatized by others for the condition. The study has been published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.
Down’s syndrome is a genetic condition caused by the presence of an extra copy of chromosome 21. It causes a variety of characteristic physical features and sufferers typically have some level of intellectual disability but this varies significantly between individuals. While it was predicted that the condition probably existed throughout human history, there has been little evidence in the archeological record to confirm this and rare cases that have been documented in past populations were poorly described.
The 1500 year old skeleton was discovered, alongside 94 others, during an excavation of a necropolis in Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, France. The researchers examined the skull of the individual and compared it with other, normal skulls of individuals of a similar age found in the area. They found the skull had several features that together were suggestive of Down’s syndrome including a short, broad skull and thin cranial bones.
The team also found that the child was buried in the same way as the others in the area, suggesting that he/she was given a normal burial. This indicates that the child was not treated differently, at least in death, from other members of the community. The researchers therefore extrapolate that the child was probably not stigmatized for having Down’s syndrome.
While some agree that the case is convincing with regards to the diagnosis of Down’s syndrome, it has also been pointed out that it is very difficult to make assertions about cultural values and practices merely from modes of burial. Furthermore, the beliefs and values held by this particular community may not necessarily have been the same as those of other populations throughout the world living during this period.