17th-century infant’s life and health revealed by ‘virtual autopsy’

A young child found in an unmarked coffin in an Austrian crypt was exceptionally well preserved, and his bones and organs show signs of rickets and pneumonia

Humans 26 October 2022

Detail of the mummy

A close-up of the mummified child’s hand

A. G. Nerlich et al/Frontiers

An infant born into an aristocratic Austrian family in the 17th century died overweight but may have been deficient in vitamin D, according to researchers who conducted a “virtual autopsy” on the mummified body.

Scans of the surprisingly well-preserved body revealed knobbly extensions on the rib joints typical of rickets, caused by lack of vitamin D, as well as thick layers of fat – which probably helped the tissues mummify. The findings suggest the child was overfed and underexposed to sunlight, leading to his death, says Andreas Nerlich at the Academic Clinic Munich-Bogenhausen in Germany.

Nerlich and his colleagues examined the infant’s remains after an unmarked wooden coffin was discovered in a crypt near a castle in Upper Austria. The crypt had constant airflow and a stable temperature, which probably helped dry out the child’s body. “We have here one of the very rare cases where such an aristocratic infant spontaneously mummified – and was available for a scientific investigation,” he says.

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Radiocarbon dating of the body, combined with records of the crypt’s construction, led the researchers to estimate that the child was buried approximately 400 years ago. Given the infant’s approximate age at death – between 10 and 18 months old – and silk wraps indicative of aristocratic birth, they suspect the child was Reichard Wilhelm, who lived from 1625 to 1626, the first-born son of the Count of Starhemberg.

Based on computed tomography (CT) scans of the body, the researchers confirmed that the child was male, and his bone measurements and tooth eruption were consistent with a child of about a year old.

The infant mummy of the Hellmons?dt crypt. Overview of the complete body with the silk coat

The infant mummy found in the crypt

A. G. Nerlich et al/Frontiers

Scans of his rib bones revealed rachitic rosary, a condition typical of severe cases of rickets. Rickets results primarily from a lack of vitamin D, which the body produces when exposed to ultraviolet sun rays. While his leg bones weren’t bowed – a tell-tale sign of rickets in older children – that may have been because the infant wasn’t walking yet, says Nehrlich. One arm bone, however, appeared slightly bent.

The infant’s lungs were inflamed, suggesting he may have died of pneumonia – a disease known to occur more frequently in children with rickets, he says.

“The combination of obesity along with a severe vitamin deficiency can only be explained by a generally ‘good’ nutritional status along with an almost complete lack of sunlight exposure,” says Nerlich.

It is unclear whether this combination of traits was common, but early infant death rates were generally high compared with today in upper social classes during the Renaissance, says Nerlich.

Journal reference: Frontiers in Medicine, DOI: 10.3389/fmed.2022.979670

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