Ancient Feces Reveals Parasites That Plagued Bronze Age Island

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

Tests on Greek feces from ancient burial plots have revealed that ancient and prehistoric peoples on one particular island were plagued by two species of intestinal worms and parasites.

According to a press release by the University of Cambridge, the parasitic worms were recovered from decomposed feces found in the surface of pelvic bones from skeletons buried from 4,000 B.C. to 2,000 B.C. and the later Roman period of 146 B.C. to 330 A.D.

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Researchers Evilena Anastasiou and Piers Mitchell used microscopy to study soil formed on the skeletons and found eggs from two species of parasitic worm were present: whipworm and roundworm.

The discoveries made by the team on the Greek Island of Kea have also provided the first archaeological evidence for the parasites described by Hippocrates, the Greek philosopher and father of medicine.

Hippocrates describes in detail how the ancient Greeks suffered various symptoms as a result of the parasites. His Hippocratic Corpus includes symptoms of vomiting up worms, diarrhoea, fevers and shivers, heartburn, weakness, and swelling of the abdomen.

The philosopher advocated some medicinal treatment for the parasites including the crushed root of the sesli herb, a plant which grew in the wild in ancient Greece as well as drinking water mixed with honey.

"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," Piers Mitchell, from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology, said.

"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.

"Finding the eggs of intestinal parasites as early as the Neolithic period in Greece is a key advance in our field," Anastasiou said. "This provides the earliest evidence for parasitic worms in ancient Greece," he added.

Hippocrates influence on modern medicine was profound. The medical practitioner who lived on the Greek Island of Kos in the fourth and fifth centuries developed the theory of humors which endured in Europe until the 17th century.