New research published today in the journal Parasitology shows how the prehistoric inhabitants of a settlement in the freshwater marshes of eastern England were infected by intestinal worms caught from foraging for food in the lakes and waterways around their homes.
The Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm, located near what is now the fenland city of Peterborough, consisted of wooden houses built on stilts above the water. Wooden causeways connected islands in the marsh and dugout canoes were used to travel along water channels.
The village burnt down in a catastrophic fire around 3.000 years ago, with artifacts from the houses preserved in the mud below the waterline, including food, cloth, and jewelry. The site has been called “Britain’s Pompeii”.
Also preserved in the surrounding mud were waterlogged “coprolites” – pieces of human feces – that have now been collected and analyzed by archaeologists at the University of Cambridge. They used microscopy techniques to detect ancient parasite eggs within the feces and surrounding sediment.
Very little is known about the intestinal diseases of Bronze Age Britain. The one previous study, of a farming village in Somerset, found evidence of roundworm and whipworm: parasites spread through contamination of food by human feces.
The ancient excrement of the Anglian marshes tells a different story. “We have found the earliest evidence for fish tapeworm, Echinostoma worm, and giant kidney worm in Britain,” said study lead author Dr. Piers Mitchell of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology.
“These parasites are spread by eating raw aquatic animals such as fish, amphibians and molluscs. Living over slow-moving water may have protected the inhabitants from some parasites, but put them at risk of others if they ate fish or frogs.
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