8,000-year-old intestinal parasite reveals toilet habits of early human settlers

'It was a special moment,' say authors of discovery that confirmed ancient people endured bloody diarrhoea and stunted growth from infestation

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Friday 31 May 2019 12:26
800 million people around the world today are infected with whipworm but parasites of early human settlers poorly understood
800 million people around the world today are infected with whipworm but parasites of early human settlers poorly understood

Scientists have unearthed the world’s oldest case of the intestinal parasite whipworm and are using it to understand the toilet habits of early human settlers.

University of Cambridge archaeologists exploring an 8,000-year-old dung heap in the settlement of Catalhoyuk in Turkey described their find as a “special moment”.

Today up to 800 million people across the globe are infected with whipworms. The 5cm parasites live on the lining of the intestines of the large bowel.

But little is known about what infections our ancestors in the near East endured as they moved from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies 10,000 years ago

“It has been suggested that this change in lifestyle resulted in a similar change in the types of diseases that affected them,” study leader Dr Piers Mitchell, of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, said.

“As the village is one of the largest and most densely populated of its time, this study at Catalhoyuk helps us to understand that process better.”

The settlement of Catalhoyuk is famous for being an incredibly well preserved early village founded around 7,100 BC, where residents cultivated wheat and barley while also herding sheep and goats.

But the first toilet was only invented in 4,000 BC in Mesopotamia, 3,000 years after the village first flourished.

(Lisa Marie Shillitoe

It is thought the people living at Catalhoyuk either went to the rubbish tip, or midden, to open their bowels, or carried their waste there in in a vessel or basket.

“We would expect this to have put the population at risk of diseases spread by contact with human faeces, and explains why they were vulnerable to contracting whipworm,” first author Marissa Ledger said.

“As writing was only invented 3,000 years after the time of Catalhoyuk, the people were unable to record what happened to them during their lives.

“This research enables us for the first time to imagine the symptoms felt by some of the prehistoric people living at Catalhoyuk who were infected by this parasite.”

Heavy whipworm infection symptoms include frequent, painful and bloody diarrhoea with a “acrid smell” according to the US Centre for Disease Control.

In severe cases, and in children, it can lead to stunted growth and brain development.

The study, published in the journal Antiquity, shows how the team found the whipworm in preserved faeces (coprolites) in the ancient midden, as well as the remains of excrement in what were the bowels of buried people.

To determine if they were from human or animal faeces, they were analysed for bile acids which vary based on their diet.

Further microscopic analysis showed eggs of whipworm were present in two of the coprolites, demonstrating people from the prehistoric village were infected by this intestinal parasite.

“It was a special moment to identify parasite eggs over 8,000 years old,” Study co author Evilena Anastasiou, of Cambridge University.

The team now wants to conduct similar analysis on early hunter-gatherer remains to see how their lifestyle change affected their infections.

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