Ancient Poop Shows Inhabitants Of "Britain's Pompeii" Were Riddled With Kidney-Eating Worms

Must Farm was first discovered in 1999, leading to preliminary excavations in 2004 and 2006. D Webb/Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Judging by the piles of centuries-old poop recently found in a British marshland, the Bronze Age was a pretty grueling time to be alive, full of belly aches, bad food, and pulverized kidneys.

A recent archaeological survey has found that the fossilized poop found at a former farm was riddled with tiny eggs, clearly showing that the farm-dwellers' bodies were home to a nasty bunch of parasitic species, including the “giant kidney worm” that can grow up to a meter in length. 

The excavation was recently carried out by archaeologists from the University of Cambridge at Must Farm, a 3,000-year-old settlement found on the outskirts of Peterborough in the east of the UK. The 1,100-square-meter (11,840 square feet) settlement was destroyed by colossal fire around 3,000 years ago that caused the wooden dwellings to collapse into a river, preserving the contents in situ. Due to the quality of the artifacts left behind and the site's scale, Must Farm has been dubbed “Britain’s Pompeii”.

An artist's impression of Must Farm as it stood nearly 3,000 years ago. V Herring, Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Reporting in the journal Parasitology, the researchers collected and analyzed human "coprolites," pieces of fossilized feces, left in the waterlogged ground and used microscopy techniques to detect ancient parasite eggs. What they discovered, as you can imagine, wasn’t pretty: clear evidence of fish tapeworms, giant kidney worm (Dioctophyma renale), pig whipworms, and Capillaria dog works. 

"We have found the earliest evidence for fish tapeworm, Echinostoma worm, and giant kidney worm in Britain," lead author Dr Piers Mitchell of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology said in a statement.

"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."

From left to right: Eggs of a fish tapeworm, giant kidney worm, and Echinostoma worm found in feces from the Must Farm site. M Ledge/, Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University

The giant kidney worm is an especially unpleasant parasite. Adult females can reach over 1 meter (3 feet) in length, making them the largest known parasitic nematode infecting humans. After being ingested by a host, the larvae migrate through the gut wall to the liver, and eventually to the kidney where it lives off mineral deposits. 

Given the lack of hygiene and close proximity to animals, parasites were commonplace through most of pre-modern history. While they might not be particularly fun for the infected person, they do help us get a surprisingly deep understanding of people’s diets, lifestyles, and environment.

“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 first author Marissa Ledger.

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