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Mummified Fetus Reveals Ancient Surgery While in Mother's Womb

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Lisa Winter

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2316 Mummified Fetus Reveals Ancient Surgery While in Mother's Womb
Credit: University Museum, State University "G. d'Annunzio" of Chieti-Pescara, Italy

Central Italy was devastated by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in April 2009 that killed over 300 people.* In the town of Casentino, the St. John the Evangelist church sustained significant damage to the floor, leading archeologists to discover human remains dating back to the 19th century. Among them, scientists discovered a mummified fetus who appears to have undergone an embryotomy. It's a surgery that dismembers the fetus while it is in the womb, when traditional delivery methods are impossible to perform. The research was led by Ruggero D'Anastasio of University Museum at University of Chieti, and the paper was published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

The fetus's remains were found wrapped up in a hooded blanket, so they had to be examined via radiograph. Immediately, they saw that the bones were not located exactly where they were supposed to be under natural circumstances. Instead, it looked like the body had been taken apart and placed roughly back together, like a human puzzle. The team was able to determine that the fetus was roughly 29 weeks into development and was dated back to about 1849.

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Due to the extent of the dismemberment, the researchers believe that this was an embryotomy and not a normal post-mortem autopsy. The skull had been severed from the spinal column and had been cut in several places. Additionally, limbs and bones within the axial skeleton had been detached or dissected. While the gender is typically revealed through the morphology of the jaw and pelvic bones, the damage to those areas was too severe for D'Anastasio's team to make that determination.

D'Anastasio told LiveScience that it is rare to see archeological evidence of an embryotomy in this region. This procedure started in Alexandria in the 1st century, as a means for physicians to extract miscarried fetuses. Centuries later, it was adopted as a means of abortion. D'Anastasio also notes that because the bones were reassembled and carefully wrapped together, it was a sign of respect and compassion for the lost life.

Along with the fetus, the researchers found items such as rosaries, clothing, jewelry, and shrouds for wrapping deceased bodies. Radiocarbon dating concluded all of these objects came from the same time period during the 1800s.

*In the aftermath of the earthquake, one Italian governmental official and six scientists were convicted of manslaughter and causing criminal injury in 2012. Though the region is routinely subjected to minor tremors, the prosecutors accused the seven of downplaying the threat. Though the defense claimed that not every event can be predicted and nothing could have been done to prevent it, they were each sentenced to six years in prison. The decision brought delight to the families of the victim, but caused outcry among scientists around the world who believe it set a dangerous and unfair precedent.

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[Hat tip: LiveScience]


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