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The study of fossils allows us to reconstruct the history of our planet and the evolution of our species, but what type of information can be derived from a foetus fossil from the Upper Palaeolithic?

This is the issue that was addressed by Sapienza Researcher Alessia Nava and coordinated by Alfredo Coppa and Luca Bondioli as part of the PhD program in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology in collaboration with the Museum of Civilizations of Rome, the Fermi Centre in Rome, Elettra-Sincrotrone Trieste, the “Abdus Salam” International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, the University of Bari and the University of Wollongong in Australia.

The research team analysed the finds from the 27,000-year-old "Ostuni 1 Burial Site,” unearthed in Santa Maria di Agnano (Puglia) in 1991 by the palaeologist Donato Coppola from the University of Bari. In particular, the team focused on the teeth of the foetus found in a twenty-year-old woman.

The still developing teeth reveal important information on the state of health of both the mother and the foetus during the last stages of pregnancy, the gestational age of the foetus and identify certain peculiarities of its embryonic development. This is the first time that aspects of the life and death of a prehistoric foetus and that of the mother’s health have been reconstructed.

The tooth enamel provides a biological archive on moments of normality and suffering. Moreover, the prenatal enamel that develops during intrauterine life, provides not only information on the foetus but also on its mother. In particular, three still-forming foetal incisors from the foetus have been visualized and analysed by X-ray micro-tomography. Using synchrotron lighting and a specific methodology of analysis developed in collaboration with a research group at SYRMEP Elettra, a virtual histological exam was performed on the fossil finds, which revealed the finest structures of the tooth enamel, which conserves the integrity of very rare finds.

The virtual histological exams allowed the team to ascertain how the death of mother and foetus occurred between weeks 31 and 33 of pregnancy. Moreover, the exams revealed that during the last two and a half months of life, three periods of acute suffering affected the mother and foetus, as evidenced by the presence of microscopic-level stress markers in the enamel. The markers, which appear as well-defined lines, result from an alteration in secretions during times of stress. Moreover, the analysis of the teeth analysis also accurately revealed its gestational age and to identify differences with modern embryonic development.

“The ancient Romans gave us the clue of accelerated foetal development in the ancient world,” explains Alessia Nava, the first author of the article. “Our research seems to confirm this trend at a much older age. Now, it's about extending our study in space and time, maybe other surprises await us.”

Prenatal enamel in historic human populations is the object of a specific research project recently launched by a team coordinated by Professors Alfredo Coppa and Luca Bondioli at Sapienza University and the Museum of Civilizations of Rome as part of the PhD programme in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology.

The study has been published in the prestigious Scientific Reports magazine.