- Rickets is commonly associated with the smog and cities of the Victorian era
- It stems from a vitamin D deficiency as a result of insufficient sunlight exposure
- Romans were also afflicted with the disease, with one in 20 suffering
- Those who lived on the British Isles were particularly likely to have rickets
- Around one in 10 were believed to be afflicted by the condition
Scientists have found evidence that Roman children were affected by rickets because they were not being exposed to adequate levels of sunshine.
The disease, which is caused by a lack of vitamin D, was more common in Britain than anywhere else in the Roman Empire.
The condition is commonly associated with the smoggy industrial towns of 19th Century Victorian Britain but the new study by researchers provides new evidence it was around nearly 2,000 years beforehand.
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Scientists from Historic England and McAster University in Canada have found evidence that the condition affected people throughout the Roman empire.
During the three-year project, the team of researchers examined Roman skeletons from northern England to southern Spain.
They studied 2,787 skeletons from 18 cemeteries across the Roman empire, looking for the deformities generally seen in rickets.
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'.
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.
However, one in 10 of the youngsters from English cemeteries was suffering the bone disorder.
A century ago, rickets was rife in children, due to crowded urban living and industrial pollution.
The disease mostly disappearing in the western world during the early 20th century as food was fortified with vitamin D.
Rickets has seen a resurgence in the UK in recent years, although levels are still relatively low.
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.'