Use of dental microstructure to investigate the role of prenatal and early life physiological stress in age at death

Publication date: April 2019

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 104

Author(s): K.O. Lorentz, S.A.M. Lemmers, C. Chrysostomou, W. Dirks, M.R. Zaruri, F. Foruzanfar, S.M.S. Sajjadi


Survival of offspring is key to the viability of populations and societies. Evidence for early childhood death in archaeological contexts has been explored through demographic methods (life tables) and mostly interpreted as due to external, environmental causes such as morbidity, injury, and malnutrition. Attempts to associate these factors with early childhood mortality rely primarily on macroscopic and microscopic surface observations of skeletal and dental pathologies. Prenatal physiological stress as a potentially predisposing factor to earlier age at death postnatally, attested clinically, has not been systematically explored in archaeological contexts representing the range of variation in human socio-cultural practices. We show here how to explore the potential correlation between prenatal stress and early age at death, as well as any potential correlation between postnatal physiological stress and early age at death, through the occurrence, number and peaks in frequencies of developmental defects in human deciduous enamel microstructure, as observed in thin sections of human mandibular deciduous canine teeth. The methodology is reviewed and applied to test applicability to a prehistoric assemblage of subadult remains recovered from South West Asia.