Over one thousand years before Homer, there exists a written account by Egyptian Pepy II of the 6th dynasty in which he urges one of his generals to look after a pygmy discovered on an expedition to the south.Furthermore, Amenemope at the end of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. set down laws to protect those born different from the norm:
Mock not the blind nor deride the dwarf nor block the cripple’s path; don’t tease a man made ill by a god nor make outcry when he blunders.
Seneb was a 4th or early 5th Dynasty dwarf and was chief of the royal wardrobe and priest of the funerary cults of Khufu. A statue still exists of him and it depicts him with his family – including his wife who was of normal stature.Also, the Egyptian gods Bes and Ptah were often depicted as dwarves.To say that dwarves were accepted and often revered members of ancient Egyptian society would be an understatement.
Dwarfism was unusually common in ancient Egypt – in fact, over 150 mummified dwarves and skeletons are currently in museum collections and scenes depicting dwarfs often adorned tomb walls. The reason for this is quite simple.The specific form of dwarfism that was present was achondroplasia – which is one of many forms of dwarfism. But Achondroplasia, which is characterized by abnormal bone growth that results in short stature with disproportionately short arms and legs, a large head, and characteristic facial features, is a dominant genetic mutation – thus there is a 50% chance of passing the trait to offspring.Considering the fact that Egypt was a closed society for quite some time and the total acceptance of dwarfs, the chance for these individuals to procreate without prejudice was favorable.
Dwarves are not to be confused with pigmies though.Pygmies are an entire race of persons of small stature first extensively written of by Homer in the Iliad.The Geranomachia, or pygmy war, was a popular topic for ancient writers and during the early modern age naturalist were clamoring to ‘rediscover’ the pygmies.In the late 1699, Edward Tyson wrote a lengthy paper on a pygmy he dissected attempting to prove that the creature was not human and thus modern man was superior.He proved to be correct in his first assumption as, looking back on the document; the pygmy was actually a chimpanzee.
The first pygmy to be rediscovered was named Akadimoo and belonged to the ‘Aka’ tribe who dwell in the forests of Africa.The account, which occurred in 1870, was recorded by botanist George August Schweinfurth:
‘I looked up and, sure enough, was the strange little creature perched upon Mohammed’s right shoulder, nervously hugging his head, and casting glances of alarm in every direction.Thus, at last, I was able to feast my eyes upon a living embodiment of the myths of some thousand years!’
Three years later two children of the Aka tribe, named Thibaut and Chair-Allah were presented to King Victor Emmanuel II in Rome.
In broad terms, a pygmy is a member of a tribe in which the top height is less than 150 centimeters (four feet and ten inches) however the shortest tribe is Efe at 135 centimeters (four feet and five inches).Furthermore, pygmies tend to have shorter legs and longer arms when compared to the average man.Also, their teeth and heads also appear to be larger that what is considered proportional.
And then there are midgets and giants.
A midget is essentially a slang term for a proportioned individual in miniature while a giant is basically a proportionately, uh, giant human being. Both have been staples of the sideshow and countless human curiosity stories and both result from a similar cause.
At the base of the brain lies the pituitary gland.On average, it is the size of a pea and it secretes a total of six hormones.But the hormone is question here is growth hormone – of which it makes one thousand times more that any of the other five.Secreted into the bloodstream it tells the cells of the body to grow and divide.By entering the bloodstream, it ensures that all portions of the body grow at an equal rate.
In gigantism – the condition of being a giant, of which there are about 50 subgroups – the pituitary gland produces far too much growth hormone and is usually due to an enlarged gland.This enlargement is either genetic or the result of a tumor and mutation and in one case, that of the Irish giant Charles Byrne (pictured above), the enlarged pituitary was comparable in size to a peach.
In the case of a midget, the gland is either too small or the cells lack the receptors the growth hormone binds to.The lack of a receptor can be a mutation or genetic – as exampled by a village in the Ecuadorian Andes where and entire community, inbreed due to location, are all midgets under four feet in height.
Lastly, there is one documented case in which a man was both a dwarf and a giant during his lifetime. Adam Rainer was born in Graz, Austria in 1899 and at the age of 21 he stood only three feet, ten and a half inches.But his height soon began to increase at an astonishing rate and by his 32nd birthday he stood just less than seven feet and two inches.He died on March 4, 1950, at the age of 51 and at a height of seven feet and ten inches – which was twice his measurement at age 21.
Adam Rainer is the only person in medical history to have been classified both as a dwarf and a giant.
Portions of the article above include excepts from Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body by Armand Leroi.
image: courtesy of the the Mütter Museum, PN, USA. The dwarf is the picture is Mary Ashberry. The skull of her stillborn child rests at her feet.