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Mystery of mummified toddler revealed after 400 years

The mystery surrounding a mummified toddler has been solved four centuries after his death, thanks to what scientists call a “virtual autopsy”. And they think he died of a problem that has received a lot of attention in recent years. Doctors have warned about this and they have urged daily action to prevent it, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The child was found in Hellmonsödt, Austria, in a wooden coffin inside a crypt for the Counts of Starhemberg. He belonged to a 17th century bourgeois family, one of the oldest aristocratic families in the country. Researchers at Germany’s Munich-Bogenhausen University Clinic determined the boy was likely Reichard Wilhelm, who died in 1625 or 1626.

The crypt contained several family members. All were buried in ornate metal coffins except for the toddler, whose simple wooden coffin was unmarked. What led to the child’s death at such a young age? Read on to find out what scientists have discovered.

Nerlich et al., Borders, 2022

According to the study published this week in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, the boy’s body was well preserved and had mummified, allowing researchers to analyze his soft tissue. To do this, they used a CT scanner.

Meanwhile, radiocarbon dating allowed scientists to determine when he had lived. “According to our data, the infant was most likely [the count’s] firstborn after the erection of the family crypt, special care may have been applied,” said Andreas Nerlich, the study’s lead author.

Nerlich et al., Borders, 2022

The research team studied the child’s teeth and measured his bones, which indicated he was between 12 and 18 months old when he died. The boy had dark hair and was overweight for his age, suggesting he was well fed.

However, the CT scan revealed that his ribs were deformed, indicating metabolic bone disease. They had developed in a pattern called “rachitic rosary”, a condition in which bony bumps develop at the junction of ribs and cartilage. It is usually seen in severe cases of rickets or scurvy. The scan also revealed inflammation of the lungs characteristic of pneumonia.

Nerlich et al., Borders, 2022

For the researchers, this indicated that although the toddler had been fed enough to gain a lot of weight, he was still suffering from malnutrition. They suggest he developed a vitamin D deficiency after being kept indoors and out of direct sunlight.

Rickets is primarily caused by vitamin C deficiency, and vitamin D deficiency has been linked to several serious illnesses, including respiratory illnesses. Scientists concluded that the child died of pneumonia and that his nutritional deficiency may have been a contributing factor.


Scientists have noted that in the 17th century, members of the upper class shunned sunlight. Pale skin was considered desirable and a mark of wealth – only laborers developed a tan by working in the sun.

“The combination of obesity and severe vitamin deficiency can only be explained by generally ‘good’ nutritional status accompanied by almost complete absence of sun exposure,” Nerlich said. “We need to reconsider the living conditions of the infants of the high aristocracy of previous populations.”

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A man pouring vitamin capsules from a white bottle into his hand.

“This is just one case, but since we know that early infant mortality rates were generally very high at that time, our observations can have a huge impact on the overall reconstruction of infants’ lives, even in the classrooms. social superiors,” said Nerlich.

Today, experts advised Americans to get plenty of vitamins C and D. Being deficient in either or both can depress the immune system, a particular concern during the COVID pandemic. While vitamin C deficiency is rare in the United States, most Americans don’t get enough vitamin D, which is produced by the body in response to sun exposure. This is why some experts recommend daily vitamin D supplementation.