The teeth of a prehistoric fetus give us information about the last months of a mother and child, who lived 27.000 years BP

Fossil records enable a detailed reconstruction of our planet’s history and of the evolution of our species. 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.
We 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, Italy) and dated back over 27,000 years. More specifically, we were 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.

Three still-forming incisors, belonging to the fetus, have been visualized and analyzed by means of X-ray microtomography at Elettra. The preliminary analysis on a portion of the fetal mandible, realized at the TomoLab laboratory allowed us to study the still-forming incisor contained within it (see Fig. 1). 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 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 way.

Figure 1 Volume rendering of a portion of the Ostuni1b right hemimandible. The lower right lateral deciduous incisor is visible through the bone transparency. The CT scan has been recorded by using the TomoLab station at Eletrra

The virtual histological analysis (Fig. 2) 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. Previous studies of ancient Romans already indicated an accelerated fetal development in the past. These new results seem to confirm this trend in even more ancient times.
We are now willing to extend our study in this respect. In fact, 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 such as synchrotron radiation microtomography, they have given voice to the fetus of the young woman (known as "the oldest mother in the world").

Figure 2 Pseudo color rendering of the virtual histological section of the Ostuni1b’s upper left deciduous central incisor. The corresponding CT scan has been acquired at the SYRMEP beamline in phase-contras mode.


This research was conducted by the following research team:

Alessia Nava1,2, Alfredo Coppa1, Donato Coppola3,4, Lucia Mancini5, Diego Dreossi5, Franco Zanini5, Federico Bernardini6,7, Claudio Tuniz6,7,8 and Luca Bondioli2 

Dipartimento di Biologia Ambientale, Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, Rome, Italy
2 Servizio di Bioarcheologia, Museo delle Civiltà, Rome, Italy
3 Università degli Studi di Bari “Aldo Moro”, Bari, Italy
4 Museo di Civiltà Preclassiche della Murgia Meridionale, Ostuni, Italy
5 Elettra-Sincrotrone Trieste, Area Science Park, Trieste, Italy
6 Centro Fermi, Museo Storico della Fisica e Centro di Studi e Ricerche “Enrico Fermi”, Roma, Italy
Multidisciplinary Laboratory, The “Abdus Salam” International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy
8 Centre for Archaeological Science, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia

Contact persons:

Alessia Nava, email: 


Alessia Nava, Alfredo Coppa, Donato Coppola, Luci Mancini, Diego Dreossi, Franco Zanini, Federico Bernardini, Claudio Tuniz, Luca Bondioli, “Virtual histological assessment of the prenatal life history and age at death of the Upper Paleolithic fetus from Ostuni (Italy)”, Scientific Reports 7, 9427 (2017), doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-09773-2.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 February 2018 11:02