A human skeleton discovered in China presents a rare case of proportionate dwarfism. The dating of the bones suggests that this individual lived about 5,000 years ago.
Skeletal dysplasia is a generic term for defective bone development. It is quite rare these days with an incidence of 3.22 per 10,000 births, but it is also rare in historical archives. Researchers have only documented around 40 cases.
The vast majority of them represent the most common form of dwarfism, called achondroplasia. It causes disproportionate growth of the limbs, shorter than the head and trunk. Recently, archaeologists have come across a young individual with an even rarer form of dysplasia.
A case of proportionate dwarfism
The skeleton was found at the Guanjia site, along the Yellow River in east-central China. He was surrounded by other skeletons. Carbon dating of the bones suggests that all of these people evolved during the Yangshao period, between 3300 and 2900 BC. AD
The skeleton (called M53) initially challenged archaeologists since its hands were placed behind the back, unlike the others. His bones were short, so the researchers initially thought it was a child. Nevertheless, dental analyzes then confirmed that he was a young adult.
The bones of its members were also fully developed, but not yet fused. According to the researchers, this characteristic is typical of people with growth disorders related to the endocrine system. Poor conservation of the pelvis and the skull did not, however, determine whether it was a man or a woman.
After analyzes, the researchers also proposed that the small size of this individual was caused by a thyroid disorder or a pituitary gland (or underactive pituitary gland) at the start of life.
These two glands make hormones which are then transported through the blood. They can then spread to all parts of the body. Without them, tissues, bones and organs cannot grow properly. These conditions can also slow cognitive development, as well as heart and lung function. Researchers suggest that an iodine deficiency could explain this condition. In fact, the thyroid needs it to make its hormones.
What social implications?
This discovery, detailed in the International Journal of Paleopathology, is also socially interesting. Assuming that these individuals may be mentally challenged and / or have heart or lung dysfunction, there is no doubt that M53 needed others during his lifetime.
“What we can say is that this person probably needed additional care and support from other members of the community,” write the researchers.
Difficult however to estimate this degree of support or even if this individual benefited from it. As Forbes notes, “historical data from the 4th to the 2nd century BC. Show that dwarfism was not viewed negatively in Confucianism, but the philosopher Zhuangzi, who wrote the founding text of Taoism, suggests that those affected by this condition were considered strangers to the community “ .
It is therefore unclear how this individual was considered by others before he died. All we know is that M53 was treated differently in his grave, with his hands behind his back.