Ancient feces reveal parasites described in earliest Greek medical texts

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Feces from prehistoric burials provide evidence for parasitic worms, as described in the writings of Hippocrates from 2500 years ago.

Evilena Anastasiou and Piers Mitchell from the University of Cambridge used microscopy on soil to study the decomposed faeces from the pelvic bones of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Roman remains.

They discovered that eggs from two types of parasitic worms were present in the faeces: whipworm (Trichuris trichiura), and roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides).

 

During the 5th and 4th century, Hippocrates was a medical practitioner from the Greek island of Cos. He was famous for developing a concept that later became known as humoral theory, to explain why people become sick.This theory remained the standard in medical practice for over 2000 years till the 17th century.

Hippocrates and his students described many diseases in their medical texts, and historians have been trying to work out which diseases they were. Until now, they had to rely on the original written descriptions of intestinal worms to estimate which parasites may have infected the ancient Greeks. The Hippocratic texts called these intestinal worms Helmins strongyle, Ascaris, and Helmins plateia.

The researchers say that this new archaeological evidence identifies beyond doubt some of the species of parasites that infected people in the region. The findings are published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“The Helmins strongyle worm in the ancient Greek texts is likely to have referred to roundworm, as found at Kea. The Ascaris worm described in the ancient medical texts may well have referred to two parasites, pinworm and whipworm, with the latter being found at Kea,” said study leader Piers Mitchell, from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology.

“Until now we only had estimates from historians as to what kinds of parasites were described in the ancient Greek medical texts. Our research confirms some aspects of what the historians thought, but also adds new information that the historians did not expect, such as that whipworm was present”.

The mention of infections by these parasites in the Hippocratic Corpus includes symptoms of vomiting up worms, diarrhoea, fevers and shivers, heartburn, weakness, and swelling of the abdomen.

Descriptions of treatment for intestinal worms in the Corpus were mainly through medicines, such as the crushed root of the wild herb seseli mixed with water and honey taken as a drink.

“Finding the eggs of intestinal parasites as early as the Neolithic period in Greece is a key advance in our field,” said Evilena Anastasiou, one of the study’s authors. “This provides the earliest evidence for parasitic worms in ancient Greece.”

“This research shows how we can bring together archaeology and history to help us better understand the discoveries of key early medical practitioners and scientists,” added Mitchell.

UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE

Header Image – This is the excavation of the site of Ayia Irini on the island of Kea, where the samples used in the study were found. CREDIT Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati.

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