For centuries, the crypt of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Austria has kept a tragic secret. A boy, perhaps no older than a year or two, who died not from lack of food or injury. But because of the simple lack of sunlight on his skin.
The male child was found mummified in a family crypt reserved for the counts of Starhemberg, having been buried there sometime between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries. His small features are withered but detailed, his body still wrapped in a fine silk robe.
Yet even though he lived a life of privilege, his short existence was clearly not a healthy one.
A virtual CT autopsy of the cadaver revealed malformations of the ribs that resemble classic signs of malnutrition, specifically vitamin D deficiency. Known as rickets, this condition tends to cause the legs to become crooked, a characteristic not seen in bone to the boy.
While remaining open-minded, the researchers considered a second possibility – low amounts of vitamin C leading to scurvy. Although the rib deformities were not identical for both conditions, their similarities were enough for the researchers to investigate further.
Fat tissue analysis revealed that the 10- to 18-month-old child was overweight for his age, at least compared to other infants of the time. As a result, the researchers suspect that the child was well-nourished in his patrician life, making vitamin C deficiency less likely.
Vitamin D, on the other hand, is not absorbed from our food in significant amounts, but rather is produced in the skin through chemical reactions that depend on ultraviolet (UV) radiation, suggesting that the child was severely malnourished not because of a lack of food, but due to lack of sunlight.
It’s the chemical absolutely crucial in bone building during childhood, explaining bone abnormalities. It also allows the body to better absorb calcium and phosphorus throughout life.
“The combination of obesity and severe vitamin deficiency can only be explained by a generally ‘good’ nutritional status together with an almost complete lack of exposure to sunlight,” explains pathologist Andreas Nerlich from the University of Munich.
Although rickets is not necessarily a death sentence, a look at a child’s lungs reveals signs of deadly pneumonia, an infection that is common in vitamin D-deficient infants.
It took until the nineteenth century and a rickets pandemic for scientists to realize that sun exposure was necessary for bone formation, too late to help the Starhemberg baby.
The mummified baby found in Austria is just one child from one time in one family in one part of Europe, but given how few infant burials are found so well preserved, the discovery is an interesting insight into the living conditions of noble babies from the 16th and 17th centuries.
During this time, aristocrats often avoided the sun to keep their skin porcelain white, a sign of high rank in much of European society. Only the peasants and workers were kissed by the sun.
In Italy, many skeletons of noble children buried in the Medici chapels of Florence in the 16th and 17th centuries also showed signs of rickets, including distortion of the limbs. Researchers behind a 2013 study say that prolonged delays in providing adequate amounts of solid foods that would provide small amounts of vitamin D in infants may increase the risks of rickets.
It is not clear whether the baby found in the Austrian crypt was weaned or ate fatty foods rich in vitamin D. It is known that he was well fed and cared for. In fact, his high level of body fat is probably what kept his remains so well preserved. There’s even some recent evidence that vitamin D deficiency is linked to childhood obesity, raising questions about what role his privileged diet may have played in his illness.
Given that the corpse was buried in a silk burial coat and was the only baby in the family crypt, researchers suspect it was a firstborn, possibly named Gundaker, Gregor or Reichard, judging by the family tree. Unfortunately, there was no inscription on his coffin.
“This is just one case,” admits Nerlich, “but because we know that infant mortality rates were generally very high at the time, our observations could have a significant impact on the overall reconstruction of infant life even in more – the upper social classes.”
The study was published in Borders.