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Already in the Bronze Age there were children with Down syndrome

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Genetic engineering

Feb 21, 2024

By Bettina Reckter

Reading time: approx. 2 minutes

More than 2,000 years ago there were children with trisomy 21, i.e. Down syndrome. This is what genetic analyzes by a Leipzig research team revealed. None of the children lived past one year.

Already in the Bronze Age there were children with Down syndrome | newsimage389023 313x0 c default
Location of the early Iron Age settlement of Alto de la Cruz, Navarre. Bone remains were also found during the 1989 excavation work.
Photo: Servicio Patrimonio Histórico Gobierno de Navarra

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig examined DNA from bone samples from almost 10,000 prehistoric and historical people from all over the world in order to search for traces of Down syndrome. This genetic disease is trisomy 21, which means that in addition to the double strand of chromosome 21, there is a third copy in the genome.

Reading tip: Nobel Prize winner Svante Pääbo – DNA investigator from the very beginning

In the sample collection, the Leipzig researchers found six children with Down syndrome. Five of them were buried more than 2,000 years ago and none of the children lived to be more than a year old. Today, people with trisomy 21 can often live long lives.

On the trail of migration behavior and pathogens

DNA from prehistoric times has long been the subject of research at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. They analyze data from people who lived thousands of years ago to draw conclusions about migration and mixing events at that time. And they are even trying to track down ancient pathogens that could have influenced the lives of people back then. However, a systematic investigation of less frequently occurring genetic diseases has not yet been carried out. Background: Today, Down syndrome occurs in around one in 1,000 births.

Already in the Bronze Age there were children with Down syndrome | newsimage389024

The remains of individual “CRU001”. The boy, who died at or shortly before birth, was buried in Alto de la Cruz. Photo: Gobierno de Navarra/JL Larrion

For Adam “Ben” Rohrlach’s team, the discovery of six people with Down syndrome came as a surprise. An individual from a church cemetery in Finland has been dated to the 17th to 18th centuries. The remaining individuals were much older. They date from 5,000 to 2,500 years ago and have been discovered at Bronze Age sites in Greece and Bulgaria and at Iron Age sites in Spain.

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