Etruscan Infants’ Diets and Skeletal Health: New Findings from Pre-Roman Italy

May 22, 2024

In a new study published in PLOS ONE, a team of researchers from the Department of Archaeology at MPI GEA, the University of Pisa and Le Mans Université reveal early Etruscan urban life histories.

Pre-Roman Italy was a patchwork of distinct socio-cultural groups. Among these, the Etruscans are recognized as major precursors to the Western Roman Empire. Despite their substantial impact on the development of pan-European trade networks and the rise of Roman power in Italy, there is still a considerable lack of knowledge about their daily lives, health, and nutrition due to the scarcity of surviving historical sources. This scarcity makes it difficult to fully understand the effects of environmental, economic, social, and demographic changes on pre-Roman groups during the 1st millennium BCE, especially on infants and children as the most vulnerable members of a society.

To address these gaps, the authors applied biochemical approaches including bone collagen, incremental dentine and tooth enamel bioapatite to adult and non-adult individuals inhumated at the major Etruscan urban center of Pontecagnano, Salerno (southern Italy). Stable isotope analysis of bones and teeth can be used to determine past diets during different periods of life, including how long a child was breastfed and the timing of weaning. This information can then be related to parental choices, socio-economic context and available resources. The authors found that adult diets were focused on ‘C3’ resources, which can include crops like wheat and barley, with limited intake of animal protein. Meanwhile, children appear to be weaned by 2.6 years of age, then moving on to foods like millet and /or fish.

“The role of millet as a weaning food is an unexpected finding and holds great value in shedding light on an interesting aspect of the everyday diet among the Etruscan society, given the very limited evidence from archaeobotany and other disciplines," says Giulia Riccomi, PI of the project ‘Infant Paleopathology and Nutrition in pre-Roman Italy’ and member of the isoTROPIC Research Group led by Patrick Roberts, coauthor of the study.

Moreover, the combination of biochemical data with previously published palaeopathological analysis of infants and children with skeletal signs of infantile scurvy showed high nitrogen content of dentine collagen in the months prior to death, consistent with the general isotopic ‘stress pattern’ that can result from periods of physiological stress, starvation, nutritional stress and active skeletal lesions. Overall, this suggests that Etruscan populations followed diverse weaning strategies to try and overcome potential economic challenges and stress conditions, while adult diets show an economic focus on dietary patterns similar to other pre-Roman groups in Italy.

This investigation pioneers the integration of multi-tissue biochemical analysis and paleopathological research to explore breastfeeding, weaning, and dietary customs in Italy during the 1st millennium BCE, while significantly contributing to the expanding literature dedicated to less-explored Italic groups.

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