Fleas from Pharaonic Amarna

By Panagiotakopulu, E. | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Fleas from Pharaonic Amarna


Panagiotakopulu, E., Antiquity


The preservation of ectoparasites in archaeological sites is normally problematic, but the dry environment of the Egyptian desert keeps even the very fragile remains of fleas intact.

Fleas, Siphonaptera, can be divided in three large groups: the sedentary fleas that live in the nest of their hosts, the mobile fleas that still require a nest but can also live on the host, and the stick-tight fleas that attach themselves on the host. The human flea, Pulex irritans L. is one of the mobile fleas, nowadays cosmopolitan, and has been found on a wide range of hosts (Hopla 1980; Cooper 2001). Man evolved in the Old World and although the human flea is closely associated with him, it probably has a New World origin (Hopla 1980: 201; Traub 1985: 408; Buckland & Sadler 1989), as all its congeners are found in the Americas. Donkin (1985) thought that the original host for P. irritans was the peccary (family Tayassuidae). However peccaries do not have relatively permanent nest sites, and Buckland & Sadler (1989), after examining the profiles of different animal hosts, have suggested Cavia porcellus L., the guinea pig (cavy) as the primary host for the flea. C. porcellus was domesticated during the pre-Colombian period for its meat, but its contribution to the South American agricultural economy has always been on a local scale. Recent archaeological finds of Pulex sp. on a pre-Columbian C. porcellus from Peru (Dittmar 2000) support the above hypothesis.

In Europe specimens of P. irritans have been recovered from Viking Dublin (Coope 1981; Rothschild 1973) and Anglo-Scandinavian York (Kenward & Hall 1995), as well as from Roman Carlisle (Goodwin et al. 1991) and the Roman period crannog at Buiston Ayrshire, Scotland (Kenward et al. 2000). Large numbers of human fleas have also been found on the Greenlandic Norse farms (Buckland & Sadler 1989; Buckland et al. 1998; Panagiotakopulu 2001).

The Workmen's Village at Amarna, 270 km south of Cairo, had a very short occupation period, 20-25 years, from the fourth regnal year of Akhenaten through the reigns of Smenkhare and Tutankhamun (c. 1350-1323 BC). It housed tomb workers and probably later guards. Barry Kemp, the director of the excavations, facilitated the environmental work on site, and provided samples for archaeoentomological research. The insect study from the site, still in progress, has produced a wide range of specimens, among which are 35 human fleas. The Amarna finds provide clear evidence for the early dispersal of human fleas and support the biogeographic model suggested by Buckland & Sadler (1989). According to their hypothesis, P. irritans got established in South America as an ectoparasite on humans around the period that the guinea pig was domesticated. From there it travelled on Man through the Americas, crossed the Bering Straits, and travelled through Asia to Africa and Europe. By small steps, perhaps largely through gift exchange of fur between small groups, the human flea has obtained a cosmopolitan distribution.

There may be earlier literary evidence for fleas in Egypt. The Ebers papyrus, bought by Berhard Ebers in 1875 and now in the University library of Leipzig, is a compilation of ancient Egyptian medical texts. Although dated to c.1550 BC, some of the treatments are believed to go back to the I Dynasty (3000 BC). One of the recipes (XCVII) recommends sprinkling with natron water in order to expel the fleas in a house. …

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