Early Residents Of “Britain’s Pompeii” Farm Riddled With Fish Tapeworms

Microscopic eggs of fish tapeworm (left), giant kidney worm (center), and Echinostoma worm (right) from the Must Farm excavation. Black scale bar represents 20 micrometers. Marissa Ledger

An analysis of ancient human poop found at one of the United Kingdom’s most well-known sites is offering a look at how communities lived thousands of years ago – parasites and all.

Nicknamed “Britain’s Pompeii”, the Must Farm is a Late Bronze Age settlement located in Fenland that was once a thriving community built on stilts over the freshwater marshes. Here, ancient inhabitants lived off the water, foraging food in dugout canoes. But tragedy struck somewhere between 900 and 800 BC when a fire tore through the community, preserving cloth, jewelry, food, and other artifacts in the silty mud below.

Now, researchers at Cambridge University are unveiling more about the lives of these water-dwelling folks. Microscopic analyses of fecal lipids found in coprolites – pieces of fossilized poop preserved in mud – led archaeologists to discover parasite eggs retained within the feces and surrounding mud.

"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, in a statement.

Illustrated reconstruction of Must Farm stilt houses. V. Herring, Cambridge Archaeological Unit

"These parasites are spread by eating raw aquatic animals such as fish, amphibians, and mollusks. 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."

Little is known about the intestinal diseases of ancient Britain’s inhabitants living 3,000 years ago, wrote the authors in the journal Parasitology, adding that their work provides a window into the life and times of ancient civilizations.

"As writing was only introduced to Britain centuries later with the Romans, these people were unable to record what happened to them during their lives. This research enables us for the first time to clearly understand the infectious diseases experienced by prehistoric people living in the Fens," said study first author Marissa Ledger.

In all, three parasites were found in the fecal samples, all of which are equally uncomfortable. Fish tapeworms live coiled in the intestines and can grow up to 10 meters (33 feet) in length, often leading to infection or anemia. Giant kidney worms are much smaller but can grow up to a meter, resulting eventually in kidney failure. A third worm, Echinostoma, is even smaller at just 1 centimeter in length and can lead to inflammation in the intestinal lining. The stagnant water at Must Farm would likely have provided prime breeding grounds for the parasites found in the human feces, which were disposed of in the waterways and likely infected local animals. If these creatures were eaten raw or undercooked, they would have spread the parasites to human consumers.

Microscopic eggs of fish tapeworm (left), giant kidney worm (center), and Echinostoma worm (right) from the Must Farm excavation. Black scale bar represents 20 micrometers. Marissa Ledger

"The dumping of excrement into the freshwater channel in which the settlement was built, and consumption of aquatic organisms from the surrounding area, created an ideal nexus for infection with various species of intestinal parasite," said Ledger.

Archeologists compared their data against those collected at sites with records of parasites. Similarly, they found that Bronze Age sites tended to have less parasites than Neolithic sites.

"Our study fits with the broader pattern of a shrinking of the parasite ecosystem through time," said Mitchell. "Changes in diet, sanitation and human-animal relationships over millennia have affected rates of parasitic infection." 

Scientists also noted evidence of similar parasitic infection in dog feces, suggesting that humans at the time shared their leftovers with their furry companions much like we do today.  

Excavation of the Must Farm pile-dwelling settlement, showing the main body of the collapsed settlement in its river silt matrix. D. Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit
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