The teeth of a prehistoric fetus give us information about the last months of a mother and child, who lived 27k years BP (Press review)

The exceptional study of an Italian team led by “Sapienza Università di Roma” has been made possible by non-invasive techniques realized with synchrotron light in Trieste. The research has been published on Scientific Reports

Fossil records enable a detailed reconstruction of our planet’s history and of the evolution of our species. But what kind of information can we obtain from the fossils of a fetus from almost 30,000 years ago? This has been investigated by a study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports and realized by Alessia Nava from ”Sapienza Università di Roma”, in collaboration with the Museum of Civilizations of Rome, Fermi Center, Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste, the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Università degli Studi di Bari and the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Researchers have studied fossil records found in the “Ostuni 1” burial site, discovered in Santa Maria di Agnano in Puglia in 1991 by Donato Coppola (Università di Bari) and dated back over 27,000 years. More specifically, they became interested in the teeth of a fetus found in the pelvic area of the skeleton of a young girl. By analysing the still forming teeth of the baby, it has been possible to obtain information about the health condition of the mother during the last months of pregnancy, to establish the gestational age of the fetus, and also to identify some specificities of the embryonal development.For the first time, it has been possible to reconstruct life and death of an ancient fetus and, at the same time, to shed light on its mother's health. Dental enamel is a sort of biological archive that constantly tracks periods of good and bad health, while forming. Prenatal enamel, which grows during intrauterine life, reports the mother's history as well. Three still-forming incisors, belonging to the fetus, have been visualized and analyzed by means of X-ray microtomography.
"The preliminary microtomography studies on the mandible of the fetus, realized at Tomolab's Elettra laboratory - says Lucia Mancini, researcher at Elettra – have been crucial to study the still-forming incisor contained within it.  At that point, thanks to the unique properties of synchrotron radiation and using a specifically-developed methodology, a high resolution 3D analysis has been carried out on the three teeth at the SYRMEP beamline. This approach, allowed us to carry out a virtual histological analysis of the precious fossil teeth, revealing the finest structures of the dental enamel in a non-destructive.”
The virtual histological analysis showed that the mother’s and baby's death occurred between the 31st and 33rd gestational weeks. Measurements also pointed out the occurrence of three severe physiological stresses that affected both individuals during the last two and a half months of pregnancy. This was highlighted by the presence of microscopic stress markers in the dental enamel, which are usually formed after stressful events as a consequence of an altered secretion. 
“Teeth represent a sort of black box - says Claudio Tuniz from ICTP – able to record much information: what type of hominids they belong to (the Neanderthal’s enamel, for example, is generally thinner than the one of a Sapiens), the kind of diet they followed, their age, their biological evolution. Looking at the future, it would be important to establish more collaborations between doctors, who study today's humans, and paleoanthropologists, who study humans from the past.”
“Ancient human specimens still contain an incredible amount of information we still need to retrieve with novel, advanced analytical techniques,” explains Franco Zanini, cultural heritage project leader at Elettra, ”and human palaeontology is only one of the fields of cultural heritage where our laboratory is producing a strong effort in order to provide modern tools to the researchers.”
“Studies of ancient Romans already indicated an accelerated fetal development in the past,” Alessia Nava reports, adding “These results seem to confirm this trend in even more ancient times. We are now willing to extend our study; new surprises might await us.” Dental prenatal enamel in human populations of the past is the main research topic of a team of researchers, led by Alfredo Coppa and Luca Bondioli, at the “Sapienza Università di Roma” and at the Museum of Civilizations of Rome. In July 2017, the team had already shed light on the prenatal development of the ancient Romans. Now, using some of the most advanced technologies, they have given voice to the fetus of the young woman (known as "the oldest mother in the world") found in the Ostuni 1 burial.
Virtual histological assessment of the prenatal life history and age at death of the Upper Paleolithic fetus from Ostuni (Italy)” . Periodical: Scientific Reports
Alessia Nava
Dipartimento di Biologia Ambientale
Università di Roma "Sapienza"

06-4991 2252/2350
Lucia Mancini, Diego Dreossi, Franco Zanini
Elettra-Sincrotrone Trieste

Claudio Tuniz

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 January 2018 12:40