Intestinal Worms: What Our Ancestors Can Tell Us

Infections with parasitic worms are a big problem in many parts of the world today, particularly in some tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. But in the past, they were much more widespread and were common throughout Europe.

Related article: Porta Loos: What have the Romans ever done for us?

Researchers from the Departments of Biology and Archaeology, Oxford, have revealed the scale of parasitic worm infections in Britain from the Prehistoric to the early Victorian periods.

The research team wanted to find out the size and scale of parasitic worm infections in the UK over the course of history. So they looked for worm eggs in the soil from the pelvises of skeletons.

They tested a lot of individual skeletons. 464 human burials were examined from 17 sites, dating from the Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution.

People In the Roman and the Late Medieval period fared the worst, with the highest rates of worm infection detected. The infection rates were similar to those seen in the most affected regions today.

Things changed in the Industrial period. Worm infection rates differed a lot between different sites – some sites had little evidence of infection, while in others there was a lot of infection.

The researchers think that local changes in sanitation and hygiene may have reduced infection in some areas before nationwide changes during the Victorian ‘Sanitary Revolution’.

Researchers Hannah Ryan and Patrik Flammer said:

‘Defining the patterns of infection with intestinal worms can help us to understand the health, diet and habits of past populations. More than that, defining the factors that led to changes in infection levels (without modern drugs) can provide support for approaches to control these infections in modern populations.’

The team will next use their array of parasite-based approaches to investigate other infections in the past. This includes more large-scale analyses of human burials, as well as continuing their ancient DNA work.

Their ambition is to employ a multidisciplinary approach, working closely with archaeologists, historians, parasitologists, biologists and other interested groups to use parasites to help understand the past.

The paper ‘Reconstructing the history of helminth prevalence in the UK’, published in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, is available here:

2 replies »

  1. Fascinating to read this, and I went on to read the actual paper itself. I studied Parasitology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine about 30 years ago and it’s one of my professional specialties, so it was very interesting to marry this with my love of archaeology.
    Thanks for this!

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