A rural village in northern Brazil is home to a population of Lilliputian residents, who have spurred public and scientific fascination.
In 2010, a group of researchers led by Johns Hopkins professor Dr. Roberto Salvatori published the results of more than a decade of research into the dwarf community of Itabaianinha, a 40,000-person municipality.
Salvatori said he first heard of the population in the 1990s when CNN Brazil did a report on the rural area with an unusually high rate of dwarfism.
Since then, the population has drawn the attention of the media, and they appear regularly in segments like this, where the host tracks down Itabaianinha’s smallest woman on Brazilian TV.
His interest piqued, the professor and his team decided to research whether or not the human growth hormone extends life, as some in the medical community had been touting.
They studied 65 dwarfs who hailed from Itabaianinha, ranging from 41 to 51 inches tall, along with 128 of their siblings who were not impacted by dwarfism.
What they found was that life expectancy for the dwarves of Itabaianinha, who had a deficit of the hormone, and their siblings, who possessed normal quantities, was just about the same.
The previous belief was that those without the enough HGH to grow to normal height suffer shorter lifespans, and that injections of the hormone could be a way to tap into the fountain of youth.
“People that lack growth hormone have high cholesterol, have increased abdominal obesity, and have all the known factors for heart disease,” Salvatori told the Toronto Star.
“But the dwarves in Brazil, you think if that’s true they would die early because they have all the risk factors associated with atherosclerosis. But when we compared their life expectancy, their longevity is the same as normal people in the area once they reach adulthood.”
He also found there was no difference in quality of life for those of shorter stature, possibly because of the prevalence in the area.
“It happens that people ask me if I’m not disgusted in the way I am. I say ‘No!’” an elderly woman told filmmakers for a short documentary on the town published on Narratively. “If God made me this way why should I be ashamed?”
According to the documentary, the city was once known in Brazil as “A cidade dos anóes,” or, “The city of dwarfs.” Spurred along by inter-family marriage, the abnormality was passed through generations.
In the late 1990s, the city’s younger residents began receiving injections of a growth hormone as part of a new treatment offered in São Paulo. At the time it was only available to those 15 years and younger, so today, those with dwarfism are an aging population.
According to Narratively, there are only 100 dwarfs remaining, including the 72-year-old twin sisters featured in the film.
Itabaianinha isn’t the only place that has acquired such a Tolkien-esque nickname for its small population.
In Pakistan, the Dwarfs of Sindh comprise about 50 people in two small villages in the Indus Valley. Interestingly, the phenomenon there was new, affecting only the youngest generation. Like the Brazilian population, scientists have studied their health to assess the impact of dwarfism on life span.
Entrepreneurs haven’t let this fascination with small populations go to waste. In 2009, a Chinese businessman tapped into the market for a dwarf city by creating his own. He is opening a controversial theme park fully staffed by little people entertainers. “There are only three requirements to work here,” Cheng Mingjing told ABC’s Nightline soon after its opening. “No infectious diseases, no one older than 50, and no one taller than 4 feet 3.”
But sometimes, the frenzy around dwarfism turns out to be just as mythical as the stories that spur on public interest.
Ten years ago, smugglers unearthed a mummy in the Iranian region of Shahdad that was only 9 inches tall, setting off a wave of excitement that the area was once home to a short people.
The discovery site was quickly nicknamed Shahr-e Kotouleha, or City of Dwarfs, but initial excitement was later disproven by archaeologists, who chided the rampant speculation and let it be known that the mummy was just a premature baby.