Archaeologists in China made an “extremely rare” discovery when they found the remains of a 5000-year-old human with a very uncommon form of dwarfism.
The skeletal remains were discovered at a burial site located close to the Yellow River in east-central China. According to Forbes, there were additional remains found of people who lived there between 3300 and 2900 B.C. All but one of the skeletons had their hands placed on top of their bodies.
There was one skeleton that had its hands tucked behind its back and that wasn’t the only interesting thing about this human. The bones appeared quite weak and short compared to the other remains found at the site. After further analysis, archaeologists found that this person died as a young adult and had a very rare form of dwarfism called skeletal dysplasia.
A disruption of bone development is a main condition with skeletal dysplasia, causing those who have it to grow to a shorter-than-average height. While the condition is quite uncommon in modern humans (approximately 3.22 out of every 10,000 births), it is even more rare in ancient humans. In fact, less than 40 cases have so far been reported in archaeological records. And in those cases, the majority of them had a more common form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, meaning that the limbs are disproportionately shorter than the body and head. It is explained even further in a paper published in the International Journal of Paleopathology which can be read in full here.
What makes the discovery in China so unique is that the skeletal remains contained short limbs but the body and head were also small in size. And while it was determined that the remains belonged to a young adult, the limb bones were still unfused. This means that the person suffered from an extremely rare condition called “proportionate dwarfism”.
The team believes that the condition developed from “pediatric onset hypopituitarism and hypothyroidism”. This means that early on in childhood, this person probably developed an underactive thyroid or pituitary gland which, without them working properly, organs and body tissue may not grow as well as they should. This could stunt the growth of bones, as well as cause problems with the function of the lungs and heart.
While achondroplasia is usually caused by a genetic mutation, developing problems with thyroid or pituitary glands are believed to be caused by not enough essential nutrients like iodine. Forbes reported that hypothyroidism rates in China are much higher than in the United States, partly because a lot of the Chinese diet doesn’t contain much iodine if any.
Although this person had a very rare condition, it’s still unclear as to how they were treated and if they lived a relatively normal life. Siân Halcrow, who is an archaeologist at the University of Otago and who co-wrote the paper, told Forbes, “I think it is important for us to recognize that disability and difference can be found in the past, but these did not necessarily have negative connotations socially or culturally,” adding, “The ancient historical texts show that they may, in fact, have been revered in some situations.”