bright sun in sky
Sean Cate
Sean Cate
June 21, 2024 ·  4 min read

Mummified Infant Shows How Lack of Sunlight Can Be Deadly

Recent findings from a study on a centuries-old mummified infant have highlighted the critical importance of sunlight for human health. The study, published in Frontiers in Medicine, offers insights into how severe vitamin D deficiency can lead to fatal health outcomes. Let’s explore the study’s findings, the role of sunlight in health, how a lack of sunlight can be the difference maker in a child’s life and death.

The Discovery of the Mummified Infant

A team of scientists based in Germany examined the mummified remains of an infant from the 17th century, found in a crypt reserved for the Austrian aristocracy. The crypt’s conditions, along with having a complete lack of sunlight, allowed for natural mummification, preserving the soft tissues, which provided crucial information about the child’s health and cause of death.1

Read More: Vitamin D May Help Prevent Heart Attacks, New Evidence Shows

Virtual Autopsy and Historical Context

Using advanced techniques like a CT scan and radiocarbon testing, the researchers conducted a virtual autopsy. They estimated the child was about one year old at the time of death, based on bone length and dental development. The child was identified as likely being Reichard Wilhelm, the first-born son of a Count of Starhemberg, who lived during the Renaissance—a period marked by significant scientific and artistic advancements.2

Signs of Malnutrition Despite Adequate Food

The virtual autopsy revealed that the child was overweight for his age, indicating he had sufficient food intake. However, his ribs showed malformations known as rachitic rosary, typically associated with severe rickets or scurvy, conditions resulting from vitamin D deficiency (which happens, amongst other methods, from having a lack of sunlight). This paradox of being well-fed yet malnourished underscores the complexity of nutritional health at the time.

The Role of Vitamin D and Sunlight

Vitamin D is essential for bone health, and its deficiency can lead to rickets in children, characterized by weak and deformed bones. The human body synthesizes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, specifically ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. In the case of the mummified infant, a lack of sunlight exposure was identified as the primary cause of the vitamin D deficiency, leading to rickets and ultimately contributing to pneumonia, which proved fatal.

Read More: Chest Pain May Be a Symptom of a Common Vitamin Deficiency

Aristocratic Lifestyle and Sunlight Avoidance

During the Renaissance, aristocrats often preferred a lack of sunlight to maintain pale skin, a status symbol distinguishing them from laborers who tanned under the sun. This cultural practice extended to infants, who were kept indoors and away from direct sunlight. The study’s findings suggest that this practice, while maintaining social status, inadvertently compromised the health of aristocratic children, making them susceptible to diseases like rickets.

Implications for Understanding Historical Health

historical high society
Credit: Pixabay

The examination of the mummified infant provides valuable insights into the health and living conditions of high-born children in historical societies. It highlights how social and cultural practices can impact health outcomes, even among the wealthy and well-fed.3 The study calls for a reevaluation of the living conditions and health management of aristocratic infants in previous populations. If they also had a lack of sunlight, it may explain a few things previously unknown.

Modern-Day Relevance

Blood sample of patient for Vitamin D test in laboratory. Hand doctor with Blood tube for Vitamin D test
Source: Shutterstock

While the study focuses on a historical case, its findings are relevant today. Vitamin D deficiency remains a concern in modern societies, especially in regions with limited sunlight or among populations with lifestyles that minimize sun exposure. Understanding the critical role of sunlight in health can inform public health strategies to prevent conditions like rickets and support overall well-being. While supplements can help – a lack of sunlight needs to be addressed primarily.


Letter D on the background of the sun. Vitamin concept
Source: Shutterstock

The tragic death of the mummified infant underscores the deadly consequences of severe vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight. The study offers a poignant reminder of the importance of balancing cultural practices with health needs. Ensuring adequate sunlight exposure is vital for preventing vitamin D deficiency and its associated health risks. This historical case serves as a powerful lesson for both past and present societies on the crucial role of sunlight in human health.

Read More: Vitamin D May Lower Your Risk of Alzheimer’s According to New Study


  1. This Renaissance-era baby died from living in darkness for a year.” PopSci. Laura Baisas. October 2022.
  2. Adipositas and metabolic bone disorder in a 16th century Upper Austrian infant crypt mummy—An interdisciplinary palaeopathological insight into historical aristocratic life.” Frontiers. Andreas G. Nerlich, et al. October 2022.
  3. Complete lack of sunlight’ killed a Renaissance-era toddler, CT scan reveals.” Live Science.  Jennifer Nalewicki. October 26, 2022.