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Staff and visitors at the Kingdom of the Little People, Kunming.          Source: Daily Hunt

China’s History With Little People Now Dates to 5,000 Years

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A new archaeology paper published on Dec. 13 in the  International Journal of Paleopathology called the  discovery of a human skeleton in China, with an uncommon form of dwarfism, ´extremely rare´.

According to a Live Science report the ancient skeleton was originally recovered from a burial site near the Yellow River in east-central China with the remains of other Neolithic people who had lived between 3300 and 2900 BC. All of the bodies were found with their hands placed on top of their bodies but curiously, one skeleton had its hands tucked behind its back and was found to be ´shorter and weaker´ than the other skeletal remains.

The individual found to have dwarfism during the excavation at Guanjia. (CC BY 4.0 Science Direct)

The individual found to have dwarfism during the excavation at Guanjia. (CC BY 4.0 Science Direct )

A very rare condition

The team of archaeologists diagnosed the young adult with ´dwarfism´ which is known medically as skeletal dysplasia, which describes a disruption in bone development causing sufferers restricted growth and a ´shorter-than-average stature´. The condition is relatively rare in modern humans and according to the paper occurs in about  3.22 out of every 10,000  births, but much less in the archaeological record with fewer than 40 cases having ever been discovered.

Most of these 40 cases represent a relatively common form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, with which limbs grow disproportionately shorter than the head and trunk of the body. But this recent discovery was a much rarer find. It was very much expected to be evidence of achondroplasia when the archaeologists found the limbs of the skeleton shorter than average, but the skull and trunk were also small and the skeleton included full-grown limb bones that had remained unfused, which was diagnosed as an exceptionally rare condition known as ´proportionate dwarfism.´

Radiographs of the long bones show osteopenia compared to a 12 year old comparative archaeological individual with non-pathological bone. (Image: CC BY 4.0)

Radiographs of the long bones show osteopenia compared to a 12 year old comparative archaeological individual with non-pathological bone. (Image: CC BY 4.0 )

Maybe the glands misfired

According to PHYS.org the paper's co-author Siân Halcrow, an archaeologist at the University of Otago, said the team theorize that the skeleton's short stature stemmed from ‘pediatric onset hypopituitarism and hypothyroidism,’ meaning that the individual likely developed underactive thyroid gland or pituitary gland early in life.

Controlling the flows and functions of growth hormones, these two glands control tissue development and with imbalances internal organs can grow unpredictably and bone growth can be stunted. What’s more, unlike achondroplasia, which generally arises from a genetic mutation, thyroid and pituitary dysfunction is thought to be linked to a lack of essential nutrients and can spark cognitive development problems and also complications in the heart and lungs. And this is why the authors concluded in their paper that the blighted Neolithic person uncovered in China probably required support from other community members throughout their life.

Portrait of Józef Boruwłaski (1739–1837), Polish born court dwarf and musician. (Public Domain)

Portrait of  Józef Boruwłaski  (1739–1837), Polish born court dwarf and musician. ( Public Domain )

Little people were both outsiders and central stagers

The team of archaeologists didn’t find any evidence as to how the individual may have been treated in life but according to Science Direct Chinese Confucian texts from the 4th century BC written by the philosopher Zhuangzi say ´If virtue is pre-eminent, the body will be forgotten,´ and from this it is thought that people with physical differences ´would not have been ostracized´.

Co-author Siân Halcrow thinks it is important for us to recognize that disability and difference can be found in the past, but these did not necessarily have negative connotations socially or culturally, and such people may ´have been revered in some situations´.

But contrary to this it is known that those with Dwarfism were often treated dismally by their ´masters´ in ancient China and after he died Confucius's hagiographers claim he ordered the execution of numerous court dwarfs after defeating one of them in a debate.

God and Savior of Little People

Historians suspect Chinese Court dwarfs might even have been sexually exploited and in Martin Monestier´s 1988 book Human Oddities he claims that the Emperor Xuanzong constructed a ´Resting Place for Desirable Monsters.´ What's more, ´Dwarfs´ were included among the ´monsters´ of Emperor Wu Di who reigned in ancient China during the Western Han Dynasty , and they were imported to act as slaves and jesters.

Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han from an ancient Chinese book. (Public Domain)

Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han from an ancient Chinese book. ( Public Domain )

According to Britannia.com it was Yang Cheng , (or Yang Xiji), who served the Wudi emperor between 502–549 AD as a criminal judge in the ancient Hunan province, who eventually turned things around when he told the emperor that little people were his subjects rather than his slaves and he released the dwarves. He was deeply disturbed that the ruler was destroying the normal family life of dwarfs by pressing them into service as personal servants and court entertainers and Yang admonished the emperor, pointing out that these unfortunate people were subjects, not slaves.

Grateful for Yang’s solicitous intercession the dwarfs worshiped images of their benefactor and offered sacrifices, and so developed ´The cult of Yang´ as god of happiness throughout China.

Modern curiosity at the little people kingdom

For better or worse, little people remain somewhat of a curiosity in the nation. In 2009 a theme park called ‘The World Eco Garden of Butterflies and the Dwarf Empire’ also known as ‘Kingdom of the Little People’ was opened in Kunming. According to Go Kunming , this is staffed by over 80 little people from all over China, “who for a variety of reasons are extremely short with the tallest being four feet three inches and the shorter residents being just a squeak over two feet.” They perform a show twice daily and are paid fairly well for their work.

Staff and visitors at the Kingdom of the Little People, Kunming, China, 2011. (Blorg /CC BY-SA 4.0)

Staff and visitors at the Kingdom of the Little People, Kunming, China, 2011. (Blorg / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In an interview with Go Kunming in 2009, Xiaoxiao who was employed as ‘princess of Dwarf empire’ commented, “For many people like us, it's difficult to find work… We're looked at as being strange in the outside world, but here it's quite good."

In an article for The Guardian , Sanne De Wilde commented, “In the brochures, it looks colorful and a little fantastic ... but the reality is much greyer and a little sad”, although she also reported that “many of the workers in the park described it as, ‘a wonderful place and even a kind of paradise.’” In what sense the attraction might be viewed as paradise is controversial.

Bones can tell us a great deal about life in the past. From the contrasting layout of the bones here, we know this person was treated differently to others at the site. How much and in what manner this reflects on their treatment in life remains unknown, although further tests will add more details in due course.

Top image: Staff and visitors at the Kingdom of the Little People, Kunming.          Source: Daily Hunt

By Ashley Cowie

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