Dating, mating — and worse, procreating — with family members is something that is usually frowned upon in Western culture, but in many societies around the world, it’s actually quite normal. In fact, royalty tend to marry within the family in order to keep the bloodlines pure, although this can lead to a host of medical problems across generations. This is a reality that has become more and more evident as medical science has advanced, physicians and researchers deciphering the connections between genetic mutations and inbreeding.
And it’s not just in royal families or rural backwoods where people have ended up marrying their siblings or cousins as the media have portrayed in many a horror movie. There are also plenty of celebrated scholars who have married their family members. Charles Darwin, for example, married his first cousin. They even went on to have ten children together, and it was only after three died at young ages that Charles worried about whether or not inbreeding was the reason behind their deaths. We’ll never truly know for sure if his suspicions were right, but what we can be certain about is that there are a number of abnormal physical traits that can arise from mating within the family. Some of these are outward and overt, but there are also others involving internal struggles that can debilitate the systems of inbred offspring.
Here are 15 of the strangest traits that may result from inbreeding:
15. Lack Of Nails
Children who are the product of inbreeding are sometimes born with extra or missing parts of their bodies. And strangely, the abnormality may occur in only one interbred family. Such was the case in the Kingston clan who were their own faction of polygamous Mormons. The family actually had a reputation of being some type of undercover crime organization engaged in so many rape and molestation incidents that they were even raided by the police. The members of the clan intermarried so often that are believed to have developed their own inbreeding trait: a substantial number of family members lacked fingernails — truly an odd sight. Researchers suspect that the physical deformity is linked to the clan’s genetic closeness, but so far, this has never been confirmed as necessary extensive testing has yet to be performed.
People from all ethnic backgrounds can give birth to children who have albinism. Those who live with the condition have an absence of melanin in their skin, hair, and eyes. As a result, their hair can be pale blond to white, their eyes are usually a fair blue, and they often have vision problems. Why does it happen? Well, one possibility is inbreeding. Because albinism is an autosomal recessive condition, people who are related and intermarry or mate are more inclined to give birth to children with the disease. Evidence shows that unions involving siblings, parent-child, or cousins have a greater chance of producing offspring with albinism than other couples. In fact, in Puerto Rico, where there are small villages where it’s difficult to meet new people and interbreeding has become a norm, there are, by density, more people with albinism than anywhere else in the world.
During the days of traveling circuses, people with microcephaly were often put on display as freaks, just like the famous “Schlitzie the Pinhead” was. So no, the condition is not at all new to the medical world, although it has been making headlines lately as the Zika virus has been giving pregnant women quite a scare in the last few years. When women are infected by the virus while with child, their babies become susceptible to being affected by the disease. The head of the child would then become under-grown, the brain not forming fully either. However, the abnormality is not an exclusive bi-product of Zika; microcephaly is also a trait that children of inbreeding can suffer from. It’s something that Pakistani Muslims see in their children — not really all that surprising, considering that more than 60 percent of Pakistani Muslim families encourage marriage among relatives.
12. Fused Limbs
Movies and television shows like to depict children of incest as mongrels with eleven fingers and disfigured faces, but in reality, those are more uncommon traits. Surprisingly, however, children born with fused limbs are common. In such cases, fingers or toes are fully grown, but the skin and flesh around one or two of them are linked together. The condition is called polydactylism and can make parts of the body webbed or like one strange, alien-like unit. For example, there is a tribe in Zimbabwe with a small gene pool, and many of the family members have fused limbs on their toes, making their feet look like those of birds. For this reason, they’ve been dubbed “the ostrich people.”
11. Immune System
Inbred children will face a number of issues, one of which is a depleted immune system. A regular immune system has various alleles that work together to fight viruses and diseases; however, people born of incestuous relationships lack a variety of alleles and can’t fight off sicknesses as effectively. As a result, they’re often regularly ill and suffer from problems with their internal organs, muscles, or bone structure. In fact, when inbred children are in their developmental stages, it is medically suggested that they be closely monitored because if a such children become repeatedly sick, this may do even more damage to their immune system. Thus, mixing up the DNA pool is needed in order to keep the immune system of future generations strong. Ironically, however, people who breed within families often believe they are keeping their clans pure, when in reality, they are doing physical damage to their future generations.
10. The Habsburg Jaw
Having a long jaw doesn’t necessarily mean that you come from a family of inbreds, but it does seem to be a trait that the House of Habsburg couldn’t avoid. The noble family rose to power during the 1400s and reigned for 300 years, and like many royal families, they didn’t want to intermingle their bloodline with peasants. For that purpose, they married and had children with relatives in order to keep the wealth within the family. Unfortunately, as generations went on, physical attributes started to change, including a long, protruding lower jaw with a highly noticeable under bite. It’s said that Charles II of Spain’s jaw was so bad that he was a drooler, couldn’t chew correctly, and had trouble speaking…and that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the problems he had to deal with because of his ancestors’ inbreeding.
This one is all about testicles. Something male children of incestuous relationships occasionally have to deal with is cryptorchidism, a condition where the testes don’t drop down into the scrotum. Researchers claim that three percent of inbred infant males will be born with this condition. It may be caused by the duplicate chromosomes occurring because of a lack of DNA diversity in the inbred gene pool. If a baby boy has cryptorchidism, he will most likely also be born with a cleft palate (which will be discussed later) or Young-Maders syndrome that can cause mental retardation or heart defects. Cryptorchidism can also make young men infertile or give them a host of reproductive problems. Could this be nature’s way of shutting down the gene-damaged lineage?
8. Cleft Palate
A cleft palate is said to occur when the roof of the mouth improperly forms, thus causing the sinus passage to remain open. It’s easy to spot people with this condition because it looks as if they have an ill-formed upper lip that lifts into their noses. And while it may look as if it’s strictly a cosmetic issue, people with cleft palates have difficulty breathing, eating, swallowing, and sometimes speaking. This condition is said to form in the womb, and in places such as India or Kenya, where inbreeding runs rampant in small tribes, many babies are born with cleft palates. Those who are able to afford reconstructive surgeries for their children have the procedures done, but for families in poorer areas, that option is an impossibility. Fortunately, there are charitable organizations that specifically raise money for impoverished areas where incest is a normality and children are more frequently born with cleft palates.
6. Elongated Skull
Once thought to have come from the artistic imaginations of ancient Egyptians, elongated heads weren’t actually exaggerations. In fact, researchers now claim that the statues and busts showing elongated heads are accurate representations of the way the Egyptian royalty actually looked — their skulls developing that way as a result of years upon years of inbreeding. Ancient Egyptian royal bloodlines were riddled with incest as marriages between siblings and cousins were common. Eventually, the long heads became a characteristic of many in their clan, and shockingly, those that were (un)lucky enough to be born with regular-shaped heads, had to have their heads wrapped so that their skulls would be misshapen like those of the rest of their family. In fact, according to reports, King Tut was said to have suffered from not only an elongated head, but also a cleft palate, scoliosis, and a number of other issues affiliated with being the offspring of an incestuous family.
No face in this world is perfectly symmetrical, but incest offspring are more vulnerable to being born with heavily asymmetrical faces. This regularly happens with children who come from a long lineage of inbreeding that causes congenital birth defects. Actually, when normal babies are born, their facial structures are normally close to being perfectly symmetrical. In contrast, however, inbred children will often show signs of one ear being higher, one eye being larger, or maybe one side of the face being droopier than the other. Films have exaggerated these traits and created monsters who grow up in the deep forests and, as a result of being in the nth generation of incest, have horribly misshapen faces. Nevertheless, while asymmetrical faces don’t customarily get that bad, they can be rather shocking. Fortunately, a trip to a plastic or reconstructive surgeon can often fix minor problems.
Like the earlier-discussed immune system issue, problems with the blood are another incest trait that people aren’t able to see. One example of someone who suffered from blood problems is Leopold. He was the son of cousins Queen Victoria and Albert, and he developed blood-clotting issues that couldn’t seem to be remedied. Leopold never married any of his immediate family, but his siblings did, and they, too, started to notice that their children had the same blood clotting issues as their brother. What they didn’t know was that they all had hemophilia, a blood disorder that can make a person bleed severely from even a minor injury because it makes blood clot at a reduced rate. Obviously, the condition was very dangerous, leaving royal family members and heirs to the throne prone to falling ill and dying at the slightest physical injury.
As we mentioned above, King Tut was from a long line of incest, and he suffered from a number of health issues associated with being inbred. One of those health issues was having a club foot, which refers to a variety of foot abnormalities that include feet that are missing bones, that are curled inward, or have malformations. Children who suffer from the condition are actually born with it, although the abnormality may not seem very evident at first. Then, as these children grow older, the affliction is likely to worsen. And like asymmetrical faces, club foot becomes more common as incest deepens within generations of a family. Many physicians treat clubfoot by placing patients in braces or splints, but in extreme cases, surgery is needed as small children will be unable to learn how to walk without the procedure.
People with dwarfism don’t necessarily come from long lines of inbreeding, but when tribes and small villages where inbreeding was common were studied, there was a higher rate of little people being born within those groups. In fact, the Ellis-van Creveld syndrome — the more scientific name for dwarfism — has been found among people in isolated populations, such as the Amish who are settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the 1700s, children with dwarfism born into this community, often came out of their mother’s womb with teeth, cleft palates, misshapen wrists, heart defects, fused limbs, and missing fingernails. This was probably because Amish communities of the time tended to completely separate themselves from the “English” world, and as a result, their gene pool was only diversified when someone from the outside converted and moved into the community. However, that didn’t happen regularly, so for generations, they mixed and mingled within the same families, thus creating various incestuous genetic disorders.
Families who like to stick close together when it comes to breeding will find that as many of their children and grandchildren grow older, they struggle with infertility. In fact, some people who come from incestuous families will be told that they can never have children, while others will learn that it will take them much more effort to bear offspring. This is because inbreeding negatively affects the reproductive system in both males and females. Men, as mentioned earlier, can suffer from the testicle-affecting cryptorchidism. They can also have low sperm counts or have sperm that is abnormal altogether. Women, meanwhile, can have a deformed uterus or vaginal canal, malformed ovaries, or eggs that can’t produce healthy children. Thus, while it was terribly important to royal families to birth heirs to the throne, as they married their relatives, they ironically made having children that much more difficult.