Ancient DNA Analysis Reveals Early Humans with Down Syndrome Were Cherished

Written by Henrik Rothen

Feb.27 - 2024 1:32 PM CET

Ancient DNA Analysis Reveals Early Humans with Down Syndrome Were Cherished.

Trending Now

A groundbreaking international DNA study has uncovered the earliest known instances of individuals with Down syndrome, offering poignant insights into their lives and the societies they lived in. Researchers analyzed the DNA of nearly 10,000 individuals from the Stone and Iron Ages, identifying six cases of Down syndrome.

The oldest of these cases dates back to around 3500 BCE, marking the earliest evidence of Down syndrome ever discovered. This research sheds light on the roles and treatment of individuals with intellectual disabilities in prehistoric communities.

The study spanned from 3000 to 500 BCE, with five of the six identified individuals hailing from the Bronze Age in Greece and Bulgaria and the Iron Age in Spain. The sixth individual, found in a Finnish cemetery, dates back to the 17th or 18th century CE.

This research was made possible by a new statistical model developed by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, led by prehistoric DNA expert Adam Rohrlach.

The model allowed for the screening of DNA fragments in relation to chromosomes, identifying individuals with approximately 50% more DNA from a specific chromosome, indicative of Down syndrome.

Contrary to the challenges faced by individuals with Down syndrome today, the study reveals that in the past, babies born with the condition were not ostracized but were instead embraced by their communities.

Despite their short lifespans, with most identified individuals dying in infancy and only one reaching just beyond their first birthday, their burials were similar to those of other children in their communities. They were buried within settlement boundaries and often with personal items like colored bead necklaces, bronze rings, or shells.

"The graves suggest that these individuals were cared for and valued as part of their community," Rohrlach notes, highlighting the compassionate treatment of individuals with Down syndrome in ancient times. This research not only expands our understanding of Down syndrome through history but also illustrates the enduring human capacity for empathy and inclusion.

Most Read