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Desperately seeking stress: A pilot study of cortisol in archaeological tooth structures

Quade, Leslie and Chazot, Paul L. and Gowland, Rebecca (2021) 'Desperately seeking stress: A pilot study of cortisol in archaeological tooth structures.', American journal of physical anthropology., 174 (3). pp. 532-541.


Objectives: Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone produced through activation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. It is known as the “stress hormone” for its primary role in the body's stress response and has been the focus of much modern clinical research. Within archaeology, only a few studies have analyzed cortisol in human remains and these have been restricted to hair (Webb et al., 2010; Webb, White, van Uum, & Longstaffe, 2015a; Webb, White, van Uum, & Longstaffe, 2015b). This study examines the utility of dentine and enamel, which survive well archaeologically, as possible reservoirs for detectable levels of cortisol. Materials and methods: Then, 69 teeth from 65 individuals from five Roman and Post-Roman sites in France were tested via competitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to assess and quantify the cortisol concentrations present within tooth dentine and enamel. Results: In both tooth dentine and enamel, detectable concentrations of cortisol were identified in multiple teeth. However, concentrations were low and not all teeth yielded results that were measurable through cortisol ELISA. Differences in cortisol values between dentine and enamel could suggest different uptake mechanisms or timing. Discussion: These results suggest that cortisol is incorporated within tooth structures and merits further investigation in both modern and archaeological contexts. Analysis of the results through liquid chromatographic–mass spectrometry would verify current results and might yield values that could be better integrated with published cortisol studies. Future studies of cortisol in tooth structures would greatly expand the research potential of cortisol in the past and could have implications for studies of human stress across deep time.

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Publisher statement:© 2020 The Authors. American Journal of Physical Anthropology published by Wiley Periodicals LLC. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non‐commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.
Date accepted:21 September 2020
Date deposited:07 October 2020
Date of first online publication:07 October 2020
Date first made open access:07 October 2020

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