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Geneticists have discovered that a baby buried almost 4,000 years ago had the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome by analyzing DNA preserved in his skeleton. Researchers say the finding, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, is the oldest confirmed case of Down syndrome.
Babies born with Down syndrome typically have distinctively-shaped eyes and skulls, which the authors of the Nature paper suggest might have set him apart as an infant. Chemical analysis of his bones shows he was breastfed, and when he died at about six months old he was buried in a monumental tomb, along with other children and adults, at a site called Poulnabrone on the west coast of Ireland. “The visible difference of that infant didn’t preclude him being buried in a prestigious setting,” says Trinity College Dublin geneticist Daniel Bradley, who led the new study.
To Lorna Tilley, an Australian archaeologist who specializes in the way past societies cared for people who were sick or disabled, the the fact that the baby was buried in a monumental tomb with other children and adults should come as no surprise. “I’m not sure, unless it was a really dramatic case, it would have been thought of as strange,” she says. “Most babies, in most circumstances, are looked after.”
In fact, the evidence suggests that people in the past devoted significant time and scarce resources to caring for those in need. Scouring the archaeological literature, Tilley and others have turned up evidence that caring for the weak and sick is behavior that goes back as far as Neanderthals. “I take these cases for granted now,” Tilley says. “From the very earliest times, we can see evidence that people who were unable to function were helped, looked after and given what care was available.”