Portrait of Dr Alessia Nava

Dr Alessia Nava

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellow


Dr Alessia Nava received her PhD from the Department of Environmental Biology of the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, in February 2017. Her research project was focused on the interrelations between the dental enamel growth rates and the reconstruction of the infants’ biological life history, with attention on the characterisation of the prenatal (that which forms in utero) component of the deciduous dental enamel. The research was conducted on modern, archaeological and fossil human samples, using both classic and virtual (synchrotron-based) histology. 

Dr Nava has participated in field excavations since 2004 at many sites across the Italian peninsula and islands, alongside ones in Oman and Serbia. Moreover, she participated at and co-directed (2016-18) the Archaeological and Anthropological Mission in the sedimentary basin in Buya (1Ma), Eritrean Danakil. 

Before coming to the University of Kent, Alessia carried out postdoctoral research at the Oral and Maxillofacial Sciences Department of the Sapienza University of Rome, continuing to investigate childhood growth and dietary patterns through dental enamel. 

Dr Nava joined the School of Anthropology and Conservation in September 2020 as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow to work on her project entitled 'Weaning Practices in Ancient Italy (WEAN-IT)'. Her project will investigate weaning age during the Neolithic revolution and origins of urbanism in Italy, using histological and chemical signals from archaeological and modern samples of bones and teeth. The aim is to provide a new insight into the biocultural consequences of this critical period during recent human evolution. 

Research interests

Dr Nava's research interests focus on:

  • Dental histology of primary and secondary dentition in Homo and in primates;
  • Development of synchrotron-based Virtual Histology techniques of bone and dental tissue;
  • Analysis of the variation in dental tissue growth-rates for the understanding of human ontogenesis in an evolutionary perspective;
  • Analysis of the elemental and isotopic composition of mineralised dental tissues for the study of the secretion and mineralisation of dental enamel, of the diet in the pre- and postnatal phases of life, and for the study of mobility;
  • Diachronic analysis of microscopic morphology, compositional variations and growth rates in the prenatal portion of the dental enamel aimed at reconstructing the biological life-history of the foetus and mother during pregnancy;
  • Bioarchaeology of past human populations.

Currently, Alessia is investigating the reconstruction of weaning age and its variability during recent human evolution to determine how this relates to the ways human societies developed. Analysing dental remains of infants can provide direct evidence of weaning in ancient humans at very high (weekly or even daily) time resolution. Through the analysis of dental enamel that forms before birth (i.e. the prenatal enamel), the mother’s diet, health and mobility during pregnancy can be examined, and the role of women evaluated from an evolutionary perspective. 

Dr Nava uses a recent methodological development of spatially-resolved, trace-elemental compositions in dental enamel to identify the change from an exclusively breast-milk diet to one that includes non-milk foods, and to assess the mother’s diet. Indeed, the chemical signals of diet will be aligned with high-resolution histology to provide the exact timing when weaning began and, ideally, when the complete cessation of breast-milk supply occurred. The dietary changes can be correlated with the growth rates of dental tissues to develop statistical models on weaning.

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