Despite modern sanitation and knowledge, at least a fifth of the world’s population today has worms. Now, evidence from one of the world’s earliest farming towns, Çatalhöyük in Turkey — which dates to around 9,000 years ago — shows they too suffered from nematode infestation.
That is zero surprise, at many levels. But it’s nice to have proof in the form of fossil feces bearing worm eggs, as reported Friday in the journal Antiquity.
“It was a special moment to identify parasite eggs over 8,000 years old,” said study co-author Evilena Anastasiou. We feel that way too.
The study was based on microscopic study of the coprolites in the rubbish dump (which were proven to be human by chemical analysis) and of the soil formed from decomposed feces recovered from the pelvic region in graves, which dated from 9,100 to 8,150 years ago.
Whipworm eggs were found in two of the coprolites. That’s enough to show that the people in Çatalhöyük had worms.
Dinosaurs scratching madly
Every life-form on Earth is parasitized by other life-forms. Even bacteria get parasitized, by bacteriophage viruses — which are thought to be the most common form of life on Earth. That early origin is theoretical, but there is ample fossil evidence that parasitism has been around since the dawn of multicellular organisms.
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Worms were found attached to other worms 520 million years ago, though the case for parasitism isn’t closed: Fleas and ticks plagued dinosaurs, we learn from ectoparasitic hematophagous arthropods trapped in amber. Feathered theropods may have done more than attack with their forepaw claws.
Traces of whipworm were also found in prehistoric hunter-gatherers in South Africa, based on coprolites (fossil feces) found in Kruger Cave, as reported in the South African Medical Journal.
The eggs in the Çatalhöyük coprolites, however, are the earliest proven parasite infestation in the prehistoric mainland Near East, say Marissa Ledger from the University of Cambridge, with colleagues from Newcastle University, the University of Bristol, Koç University in Istanbul and the University of Bordeaux.
Worms and the sedentary life
Famed for the extraordinary state of its preservation, Çatalhöyük is located in the heartland of the Fertile Crescent where subsistence agriculture may have first arisen. The Turkish town was home to early farmers of grains, including wheat and barley. They also kept animals, being early herders of goats and sheep. (These were apparently domesticated a little earlier in next-door Mesopotamia.) There is thinking that the sheer monumental construction in prehistoric Turkey at least 11,000 years ago — in Göbekli Tepe, for instance, and a little later in Çatalhöyük — attests that the communities there had learned to farm, and became sedentary.
But while the development of agriculture may have elevated humankind to the point of building monumental edifices such as at Göbekli Tepe, and sustained much larger communities than hunter-gatherers possibly could, it may have rendered the people more vulnerable to a whole new set of parasites.
It bears adding that a study from 2018 concluded that the transition from nomadic hunting-gathering to sedentary agriculturalism didn’t necessarily increase the disease burden: it did, however, change our problems and parasites.
Hunter-gatherers in prehistoric China and Vietnam were found to be riddled with tapeworm and to have suffered from gout, while the early farmers had other issues such as tuberculosis.
“It has been suggested that this change in lifestyle resulted in a similar change in the types of diseases that affected them,” says study lead Dr. Piers Mitchell of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology. “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,” he adds.
While hunter-gatherers were nomadic or semi-nomadic, early farmers settled down and lived and grew food in the fields in which they relieved themselves, seeding the soil with whipworm eggs. In Çatalhöyük, the team thinks the locals may have relieved themselves in the local rubbish dump, because coprolites were found there, but they may have fertilized their fields with their own waste. And they didn’t have true sanitation: The toilet wouldn’t be invented for another 3,000 years (in Mesopotamia). They also may not have washed their hands.
As the worm turns
The whipworm is a roundworm type of nematode. They live in our intestines and cause trichuriasis, which can involve fatigue, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Heavily infested children can become stunted. We pass it from one another through feces, commonly by eating foods grown in fields manured with human waste. As many as 800 million people worldwide could have it today, according to estimates by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fun facts about the whipworm: They can be up to 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) in length and live for five years. “Male and female worms mate and their eggs are mixed in with the feces,” writes the team. Good to know.
By the way, even if the people of Çatalhöyük would have had sanitation, that doesn’t necessarily mean they would have been spared the worm. A much later study in which Mitchell was also involved looked at the ancient Romans — who were famed for their notions of cleanliness, including public baths. That may have been an unfortunate choice.
The Romans turn out to have been even more worm-infested than their unwashed peers, and also compared with earlier peoples — and they were riddled, among other things, with whipworms.
Why? Either they fertilized their crops with human waste or because of their communal bathing — and we all know what some people do in the bath.
The Cambridge team worked on this project with bioarchaeologists Scott Haddow of Koç University, Christopher Knüsel of the University of Bordeaux, and the Human Remains Laboratory of the Çatalhöyük Research Project, led by Prof. Ian Hodder of Stanford University.