For centuries, the crypt of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Austria has preserved a tragic secret. A boy, perhaps no older than a year or two in age, who died not from a lack of food, or injury. But for a simple want of sunlight on his skin.

The male child was found mummified in a family crypt reserved for the Counts of Starhemberg, having been interred there somewhere between the middle of the 16th and 17th centuries. His tiny features are withered but detailed, his body still wrapped in an elaborate silk garment.

Yet, in spite of living a life of privilege, his short existence was clearly not a healthy one.

A virtual autopsy of the corpse using CT scans has revealed malformations to the ribs that resemble classical signs of malnutrition, specifically vitamin D deficiency. Known as rickets, this condition tends to result in a bowing of the legs, a feature that wasn’t evident in the boy’s bones.

Keeping an open mind, the researchers considered a second possibility – low amounts of vitamin C, resulting in scurvy. While the rib deformations aren’t identical for both conditions, their similarities were enough for the researchers to investigate further.

The infant mummy covered in a silk coat.

Fat tissue analysis revealed the 10- to 18-month-year-old was overweight for his age, at least compared to other infants of the time. As a result, researchers suspect the child was well-fed in his patrician life, making vitamin C deficiency less likely.

Vitamin D, on the other hand, isn’t absorbed from our food in significant amounts, but rather produced in the skin through chemical reactions that depend on ultraviolet (UV) radiation, suggesting the child was severely undernourished not for want of food, but by lack of sunlight.

The chemical is absolutely crucial in building bones during childhood, explaining the bone abnormalities. It also allows the body to better absorb calcium and phosphorous throughout life.

“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,” explains pathologist Andreas Nerlich from the University of Munich.

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