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Children were at risk from rickets in Roman times, study shows

Research looking at skeletons from 18 Roman cemeteries across the ancient empire reveals the problem was widespread 2,000 years ago.

Rickets in children was a widespread problem in Roman times, research into thousands of skeletons across Europe has revealed.

The findings reveal that vitamin D deficiency which causes rickets, a condition whose signs include skeletal deformity and bone pain, “is far from being a new problem”.

A century ago, rickets was rife in children, due to crowded urban living and industrial pollution which meant they were not exposed to sufficient sunlight to help make vitamin D in the body.

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A skeleton showing evidence of rickets (Historic England/PA)

After mostly disappearing in the western world during the early 20th century as food was fortified with vitamin D, rickets has been on the rise in the UK in recent years, although levels are still relatively low.

Now research looking at 2,787 skeletons from 18 cemeteries across the Roman Empire, from England to the Mediterranean, shows how the problem was widespread 1,500 to 2,000 years ago.

Though vitamin D was not as bad a problem in Roman times as in the Victorian era, evidence for rickets was found in more than one in 20 children whose skeletons were studied, with most cases seen in infants.

Rickets in children was more common in northern parts of the Roman Empire such as England, the study by government heritage agency Historic England and McMaster University in Canada shows.

Our study shows that vitamin D deficiency is far from being a new problem – even 2,000 years ago people, especially babies, were at risk Simon Mays, Historic England

Around one in 10 of the youngsters from English cemeteries was suffering the bone disorder, according to the study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The researchers said weaker sunshine at northern latitudes makes vitamin D synthesis less effective, but the high number of infants with the deficiency suggests the way very young children were cared for could also be to blame.

Colder conditions may have meant babies were kept indoors more, away from sunshine, while pregnant mothers may have been vitamin D deficient and passed this on to their children.

Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist at Historic England, said: “Our study shows that vitamin D deficiency is far from being a new problem – even 2,000 years ago people, especially babies, were at risk.

“Being indoors away from sunshine was probably a key factor.

“Infant care practices that were innocuous in a Mediterranean climate may have been enough to tip babies into vitamin D deficiency under cloudy northern skies.”

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An illustration shows how mothers and babies in the Roman Empire may have stayed indoors away from sunlight (Judith Dobie/Historic England/PA)

Vitamin D deficiency in Roman times was no more common in towns than in the countryside – unlike in the 19th century.

This is because most Roman towns were fairly small in comparison to the industrialised cities of the Victorian era and did not have the same levels of pollution which would block out the sunlight, the researchers said.

But one place in the study, a cemetery near Ostia, Italy, bucked this trend with a high number of skeletons with rickets.

Ostia was a port town which was densely populated and many people lived in multi-storey apartment buildings.

Megan Brickley of McMaster University said: “Living in apartments with small windows, in blocks that were closely spaced around courtyards and narrow streets, may have meant that many children weren’t exposed to enough sunlight to prevent vitamin D deficiency.”

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