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 1,500 years ago, new research shows, the Huffington Post reports. The child, who is also the youngest example of the condition in the archaeological record, likely was not stigmatised 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 north-eastern France. Researchers had suspected the child may have had Down syndrome, but they hadn’t performed a rigorous analysis to confirm the diagnosis.
So Maïté Rivollat, an archaeologist 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 publications just mentioned the possibility of Down syndrome without [conducting] a detailed study,” Rivollat told Huffington Post in an email. “The [CT] scan was a new possibility to approach the intracranial aspect of that skull.”
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.
To see if the Saint-Jean-des-Vignes child really had Down syndrome, Rivollat and her team studied the dimensions and structure of the child’s skull and compared it with the skulls 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 aren’t diagnostic of Down syndrome on their own, but are indicative of the disorder when considered along with the other characteristics, the researchers point out in their study, published online last month in the International Journal of Paleopathology.
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