400-year-old Korean Mummy Shows Why Eating Crab Sushi Is a Stupid Idea

The mummy was found with something scientists didn't expect

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
A radiological image of the Cheongdo mummy. Liver mass (indicated by arrow) could be observed below the right sided diaphragm. Lv, liver.
A radiological image of the Cheongdo mummy. Liver mass (indicated by arrow) could be observed below the right-sided diaphragm. Lv, liver.Credit: D. H. Shin, Y.-S. Kim, D. S. Yoo
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A beautifully preserved 400-year-old South Korean mummy is giving us all a beautifully preserved example of why we shouldn’t eat crab sushi. Or sashimi. And why Israelis shouldn’t be tempted to eat the newly recognized invasive species of crab infesting the Mediterranean raw.

Jews who observe the laws of kashrut can stop reading here.

The mummy of a man was found to have a beautifully preserved abscess on his liver, which turned out to be full of mummified liver fluke eggs.

Specifically, the man suffered infection by Paragonimiasis westermani, which one gets from eating insufficiently cooked crabs and crayfish, say the archaeparasitologists from Seoul-based Ewha Womans University School of Medicine, University of Ulsan and Dankook University College of Medicine.

The life cycle of this pest begins with the egg, which gets spat out or excreted into nature. If the eggs are lucky enough to be spat out or excreted into freshwater, they hatch. The little flukes, called miracidiae, then infect a specific species of snail. From the snail, they pass onto crabs or crayfish and encyst throughout the unfortunate animals.

The Korean mummy, who was found in Cheongdo in 2014. He lived in the 17th century during the Joseon Dynasty.Credit: D. H. Shin, Y.-S. Kim, D. S. Yoo

Cooking the crayfish or crab properly will kill the encysted miracidiae, but neglect that and you could wind up with the same condition suffered by the Korean mummy.

How? You eat the crab and the metacercariae encyst in your small intestine. From there, they release larvae that penetrate the duodenal wall and enter your peritoneal cavity. From there, they may migrate through your diaphragm to your lungs, where they form cystic cavities in which the worms grow and mature.

The worms reach adult status in a month and a half, and can be as much as 0.5 centimeters (0.2 inches) long. You spit them out (or emit them otherwise) and around and around the parasitic cycle goes.

This mummy’s infestation eschewed esophageal invasion and created an ectopic abscess on his liver.

The scientists discovered the mass on his liver by scanning his entire body. Interestingly, his internal organs had shrunk to the dorsal side, because of gravity, the scientists suggest. But the point is that they noticed the mass on his liver, excised said liver, exposed the mass, bisected it, analyzed it and eureka: there were the paragonimiasis eggs.

Ancient Paragonimus eggs discovered from the inner-trabecular material of liver mass. Arrows indicate abopercular thickenings. Scale bars in each egg plate = 20 μm.Credit: D. H. Shin, Y.-S. Kim, D. S. Yoo

As many as 300 million people worldwide are at risk of infection with Paragonimus, according to various studies. Based on inspection of coprolites (fossilized feces), the team suspects the infection rate with this worm in 16th- to 18th-century Korea was about 28 percent of the population, compared with zero today, according to Korean health authorities.

This man lived in the 17th century – the middle of the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from the year 1392 into the modern age, only ending in 1910. He and his well-preserved clothes were found in 2014, in the South Korean province of Cheongdo. The archaeologists postulate that he and his disease were so well preserved because of the unique mummification and burial process in Korea.

The man is far from the first mummy to have been infested with parasites. But he is the first case archaeparasitologists have identified as suffering from ectopic liver Paragonimiasis westermani.

In short, before the advent of modern medicines and informed hygiene, infection with fleas, worms and other parasites was rampant. In the team’s paper, with lead author D. H. Shin and others, they note a laundry list of parasitic remains in mummies around the world. In Korean mummies alone, Ascaris sp., Trichuris trichiura, C. sinensis, Paragonimus westermani, Metagonimus yokogawai, Gymnophalloides seoi, E. vermicularis and Taenia have been identified.

In “What Did the Ancient Romans Do for Us? They Gave Us Parasites,” Ariel David describes how the perception of hygiene – as opposed to actual hygiene – can result in horrific infestation, and the ancient Romans and Jews knew not why.

Don’t eat raw crab, people. Or crayfish.

Sashimi: Watch out for the side of fluke eggs.

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