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Analysis of colored teeth from precolumbian tlatelolco: Postmortem transformation or intravitam processes?



The etiological basis of the abnormal coloration of archaeological teeth has been an unsolved question for a long time. Differences in the appearance of some archaeological teeth from Precolumbian adult and infant skeletons, detected by external optical inspection, led us to study this problem. A blue stain is visible in a few of the deciduous erupted teeth, and a brown color in various unerupted teeth in the collection, while brown spots appear on some permanent teeth. Several processes or factors that may occur during one's life, others around the time of death, and still others resulting from postmortem alterations have been reported as potential causes of abnormal tooth coloration.

A sample of 35 colored teeth and two soil layers taken from Tlatelolco were analyzed by particle-induced X- ray emission (PIXE) as well as selective dissolution techniques. Concentrations of total and extractable elements in enamel and soil layers (Cg1–Cg2) were obtained. This paper describes the occurrence and implications of a substantial secondary concentration of Zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn), strontium (Sr), and iron (Fe) in the deciduous erupted and nonerupted teeth as compared to that in the adult teeth.

Our interpretation is that, in this archaeological context, the brown spots and blue stains on the teeth are due to differences in tooth enamel porosity and to a postmortem biogeochemical process. The alterations involve cumulization and diagenesis of iron, manganese, and organic matter solutions that were eluviated from the soil and are not the result of antemortem or perimortem conditions such as trauma or disease. Am J Phys Anthropol 120:73–82, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.