The oldest confirmed case of Down’s syndrome has been found: the skeleton of a child who died 1500 years ago in early medieval France. According to the archaeologists, the way the child was buried hints that Down’s syndrome was not necessarily stigmatised in the Middle Ages.
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, researchers say.
Archaeologists originally discovered the skeleton of the child in 1989, when they excavated it along with 93 other skeletons from a fifth- to sixth-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 hadn’t performed a rigorous analysis to confirm the diagnosis.
Down’s syndrome is a genetic disorder that delays a person’s growth and causes intellectual disability. People with Down’s syndrome have three copies of chromosome 21, rather than the usual two. It was described in the 19th century, but has probably existed throughout human history. However there are few cases of Down’s syndrome in the archaeological record.
“I think the paper makes a convincing case for a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome,” says John Starbuck at Indiana University in Indianapolis. He has just analysed a 1500-year-old figurine from the Mexican Tolteca culture that he says depicts someone with Down’s syndrome.
Rivollat’s team has studied the way the child with Down’s syndrome was buried, which hasn’t been possible with other ancient cases of the condition. The child was placed on its back in the tomb, in an east-west orientation with the head at the westward end – in common with all of the dead at the necropolis.
According to Rivollat, this suggests the child was treated no differently in death from other members of the community. That in turn hints that they were not stigmatised while alive.
British physician John Langdon Down first described Down syndrome as a unique disorder in 1866. Despite this relatively recent identification of the condition, 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 1500 B.C., according to a 2011 study on the history of Down syndrome published in the Journal of Contemporary Anthropology.