Analysis Of Ancient Greek Poop Finds Gut Parasites Described By Hippocrates

These are the eggs of whipworm intestinal parasites from ancient Greek samples analyzed in the study. Reproduced with the permission of Elsevier publishing

Scientists found some poop recently, but this is no ordinary poop. This bunch of ancient feces is providing some new archaeological insights into the life, parasites, and medical knowledge of the ancient Greeks.

Archaeologists discovered the highly decomposed poop on the Greek island of Kea, among a series of burial pits containing at least 25 skeletons from the Neolithic era (4th millennium BCE), the Bronze Age (2nd millennium BCE), and the Roman periods (146 BCE - 330 CE). Scientists at the University of Cambridge have recently taken a microscope to the feces, only to discover it’s riddled with the eggs of multiple nasty parasites. As described in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the team found that eggs from whipworms (Trichuris trichiura) and roundworms (Ascaris lumbricoides) were present in the poop of at least four individuals.

Most interestingly of all, these parasites appear to match up with the intestinal worms first described in the texts of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek "Father of Medicine".

"Finding the eggs of intestinal parasites as early as the Neolithic period in Greece is a key advance in our field," Evilena Anastasiou, one of the study's authors, said in a statement. "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 lead researcher Piers Mitchell from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

These infections are not particularly pleasant, as you can imagine. The Hippocratic Corpus explains that symptoms can include stomach pain, diarrhea, fevers and chills, heartburn, weakness, abdominal swelling, and vomiting up worms.

As prophetic as his writings were, Hippocrates did also believe some rather strange things about the human body that would now be labeled as pseudoscience. For example, he believed that human moods and temperaments were the result of four bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, so it's fair to say his texts cannot be taken at face value. That's why the researchers welcome this discovery, as it's the first piece of archaeological evidence that the Greeks actually did have intestinal worms.

"The Helmins strongyle worm in the ancient Greek texts is likely to have referred to roundworm, as found at Kea," said Mitchell. "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. 

"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."

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