April 14, 2024

DNA analysis shows that prehistoric people treated disabled children with respect

In ancient cultures some children were born with Down syndrome and other genetic disorders. But our prehistoric forebears treated them with great respect. 

This is the conclusion reached by an international team of researchers who studied the DNA of human remains in ancient burial sites. Their global study involved screening DNA from about 10,000 ancient and pre-modern humans for evidence of autosomal trisomies, a condition where people carry an extra (third) copy of one of the first 22 chromosomes.

It identified six cases of children with Down syndrome and one case of a child with Edwards syndrome in human populations in latter-day Spain, Bulgaria, Finland, and Greece from as long ago as 4500 years ago. It also confirmed a case of a six-month-old boy with Down syndrome found in a large portal tomb in northwestern Ireland dating back to 3500 BC.

The research, published in Nature Communications, indicated that these eight individuals were buried with care, and often accompanied by special objects, showing that they were appreciated as members of their ancient societies, even if they were premature, or perhaps stillborn, or very young.

For instance, on the island of Aegina, Greece, the researchers identified a 12–16-month-old girl known as LAZ019 who died between 1400 and 1200 BC. She was buried wearing a necklace of 93 beads made of glass paste, faience and carnelian of different colours and sizes. A 28-week-old female known as CRU024 was found in a grave in Navarra, Spain, dating back to between 800 to 500 BC. She was buried with rich grave goods, including bronze rings, a Mediterranean seashell, and surrounded by the complete remains of three sheep and/or goats.

“While we expected that people with Down syndrome certainly existed in the past, this is the first time we’ve been able to reliably detect cases in ancient remains, as they can’t be confidently diagnosed by looking at the skeletal remains alone,” said the lead author of the study, Dr Adam Rohrlach, of the University of Adelaide.

Down syndrome occurs when an individual carries an extra copy of chromosome 21. The researchers were able to find these six cases using a novel statistical technique to accurately and efficiently screen tens of thousands of ancient samples for excess DNA.

No adult cases of Down syndrome were identified. But this is not surprising, Dr Rohrlach told Mercator in an email. “Even as recently as the 1940s, people with Down syndrome had a life expectancy of approximately 12 years [although] this has risen significantly to around 60 years of age due to improvements in modern health care.”

The study also uncovered one case of Edwards syndrome, a rare condition caused by three copies of chromosome 18, that comes with far more severe symptoms than Down syndrome. The remains indicated severe abnormalities in bone growth, and an age of death of approximately 40 weeks gestation.

All of the cases were detected in perinatal or infant burials, but from different cultures and over time periods. “These individuals were buried according to either the standard practices of their time or were in some way treated specially. This indicates that they were acknowledged as members of their community and were not treated differently in death,” says Dr Rohrlach. 

A co-author and archaeologist from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Professor Roberto Risch, says that he was puzzled by the special treatment given to these disabled children. “The remains could not confirm that these babies survived to birth, but they were among the infants buried within homes at the settlement, or within other important buildings. We don’t know why this happened, as most people were cremated during this time, but it appears as if they were purposefully choosing these infants for special burials.” 

What does all this suggest about the attitudes of ancient people toward the disabled, Mercator asked Dr Rohrlach. He said:

“Given that each of these children were given either standard, or in some cases very special burials, we can see that they were treated no differently to others, or were given even more ‘care’ in death. I think that this seems to indicate that in the cases that we observed, these children were loved and cherished just like any child today, and that is certainly an encouraging thought.”

It is nearly impossible to understand the mentality and beliefs of prehistoric, preliterate Europeans living 3000 to 6000 years ago in conditions which we would find impossibly primitive. But the archaeological record seems to suggest that even in those primitive communities, intellectually and physically disabled children were treated as precious and human – even those who were premature. 

Most Western countries take a very different view of genetic disability in unborn children. About 90 percent of pregnant women who receive a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome choose to have an abortion.