‘Virtual autopsy’ reveals secrets of 17th-century child mummy

More than four centuries after his death, the child lies lying with his hand on his stomach. His parched body retained the contours of his feet, his legs, his navel, as well as the features of his face. What happened to this young boy? This is what scientists have tried to determine by performing a “virtual autopsy” of his mummy. And she revealed some sad secrets.

The remains of the child were found in a crypt that belonged to Austrian aristocrats, the Starhembergs. Unlike the others resting in elaborate metal coffins, he was buried in a wooden coffin that gave no information about his identity or his connections to other family members.

Examinations determined that he was a very young boy, between 10 and 18 months old, who died between 1550 and 1635 and whose body naturally mummified due to the conditions prevailing in the crypt. The causes of his death, like his identity, however, continued to raise questions.

To find out more, the researchers based in Germany and Austria scanned the mummy and conducted new radiocarbon analyses. They also studied the clues found in his burial and the Starhemberg family archives. While the child’s tissues suggested he was healthy for his age, the results of the new study told a very different story.

Deformations caused by a nutritional deficiency

According to the report published at the end of October in the magazine Frontiers in Medicine, the boy suffered from a significant malformation in the ribs, usually associated with severe cases of rickets or scurvy. Clearly: if the child was sufficiently nourished, he probably had a serious nutritional deficiency.

Rickets is due to a vitamin D deficiency while scurvy is associated with a vitamin C deficiency. In this case, it is difficult to determine the exact cause of the malformations. However, the researchers indicate that since the child seems to have been sufficiently nourished, a lack of vitamin C is less likely.

Observations did not reveal any other bone deformity generally caused by rickets, particularly in the legs. But this could be explained by the fact that the child was not yet walking at his estimated age of around one year, according to the study. Moreover, the main source of vitamin D is not food but exposure to UV rays.

The CT scan images revealed malformations in the child’s ribs.

The deficiency of the child would thus not have been caused by undernourishment but by insufficient exposure to the sun. “The combination of obesity and severe vitamin deficiency can only be explained by a generally “good” nutritional status coupled with an almost complete lack of sun exposure.“, supports Dr. Andreas Nerlich of the Academic Clinic Munich-Bogenhausen who led the study.

Rickets was not the cause of the boy’s death. At least not directly. The virtual autopsy revealed inflammation in his lungs which could be a sign of pneumonia, a disease common in children with vitamin D deficiency and which can be fatal.

The study also revealed deformities at the level of the skull and the top of the vertical column. But the latter would not be linked to rickets and would rather have been caused post-mortem by the burial of the child in a coffin too narrow for his skull. So much data that provides a valuable insight into the boy’s life before his death.

This is only one case but knowing that the death rate of young children was generally very high at that time, our observations could have a considerable impact on the overall reconstruction of children’s lives, including in social classes. higher“, underlines Dr. Nerlich resumed in a press release.

The firstborn of one of the Counts of Starhemberg

One enigma remains: who was this baby? Examination of the mummy showed he was wearing a long, hooded coat made from expensive silk. The crypt where he rested was moreover exclusively reserved for the most important men of the family and their wives. Which suggests that the mysterious deceased could be the firstborn of one of the counts of Starhemberg.

The body of the child who was interred with a long hooded coat mummified naturally with the conditions in the crypt.

We have no data on the fate of the other children in the family“, explains the scientist, specifying that this baby is the only one to rest in the crypt. “According to our data, he was most likely the first son born after the construction of the family crypt, so special care may have been applied to him.“, he continues.

These arguments would leave only one likely candidate on the list: Reichard Wilhelm who died in 1626, the son of Erasmus der Jüngere (1595-1664) and the grandson of Reichard von Starhemberg, the first man to be buried in the crypt renovated around 1600 and used from 1613. But in the absence of any inscription on his coffin, the hypothesis remains difficult to confirm.

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