An analysis of ancient decomposed human poop is shedding light on how humans lived 8,000 years ago – and the parasites that infected them.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge conducted a microscopic analysis of several decomposed human feces samples – known in the academic world as coprolites – from a Neolithic village called Çatalhöyük. Settled around 7,100 BC in what is now Turkey, Çatalhöyük is well-preserved and contains some of the earliest evidence of social life when humanity transitioned from hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. Since the first toilet wasn’t invented until 3,000 years after its time, the people of this village disposed their “number twos” at a collective rubbish mound.
"It has been suggested that this change in lifestyle resulted in a similar change in the types of diseases that affected them. As the village is one of the largest and most densely populated of its time, this study at Çatalhöyük helps us to understand that process better," said Piers Mitchell in a statement, lead author of the study published in Antiquity.
Several coprolites dating between 7,100 and 6,150 BC, as well as feces-contaminated soil from burial sites, were extracted and analyzed by scientists to determine what types of parasitic infections might have impacted the ancient society. In all, they found 12 lemon-shaped whipworm eggs in two samples from the dumpsite. This “special moment” of discovery informs not only how humans transitioned between lifestyles, but also how parasites evolved alongside them.
"As writing was only invented 3,000 years after the time of Çatalhöyük, the people were unable to record what happened to them during their lives,” said study co-author Marissa Ledger. “This research enables us for the first time to imagine the symptoms felt by some of the prehistoric people living at Çatalhöyük who were infected by this parasite."
Other similar Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites turned up far more parasitic samples, which suggests that the organization of Çatalhöyük – its housing, infrastructure, and cultural practices – may have supported a more sanitary way of life that reduced the risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases associated with population booms.
Whipworms (Trichuris trichiura) are an intestinal parasite in humans and livestock that are still around today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measuring 3 to 4 centimeters in length, male and female whipworms live and mate on the lining of intestines, where their eggs are mixed with feces and sent off into the world when a person defecates. Infection can cause intestinal disease, anemia, and the painful passage of bloody and watery stool. Severe cases may even stunt growth and impair cognitive development in children.