History of Medicine: Ancient Poop Reveals Parasitic Worms Described by Hippocrates 2,500 Years Ago; Hippocrates Described Unidentified Parasitic Worms in His Medical Texts 2,500 Years Ago. Ancient Human Poop Just Revealed Which Ones

By Medrano, Kastalia | Newsweek, January 19, 2018 | Go to article overview

History of Medicine: Ancient Poop Reveals Parasitic Worms Described by Hippocrates 2,500 Years Ago; Hippocrates Described Unidentified Parasitic Worms in His Medical Texts 2,500 Years Ago. Ancient Human Poop Just Revealed Which Ones


Medrano, Kastalia, Newsweek


Byline: Kastalia Medrano

Researchers studying prehistoric poop on the Greek island of Kea have finally identified the parasitic worms that Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician widely considered the father of modern medicine, described in his famous medical texts 2,500 years ago.

Scientists collected decomposed human poop from the pelvic bones of skeletons from the Neolithic period, Bronze Age and Roman periods--so, from points between around 10200 B.C. to around the fourth century A.D. They then studied the soil produced by said poop.

Analysis by the University of Cambridge scientists revealed it contained eggs from two kinds of parasitic worms, or helminths: the whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) and roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides), which date respectively to the Neolithic and Bronze Age. These two species, the researchers concluded, are among those that infected the patients Hippocrates wrote about, making this the earliest known evidence of parasitic worms in ancient Greece. A paper describing the discovery was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Hippocrates lived in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. The medical texts he produced in his lifetime (the most well-known of which is probably the Hippocratic Oath, the pledge all physicians take to do no harm) included descriptions of parasitic infections. These caused their hosts to vomit up worms, among other unfortunate symptoms such as diarrhea, fevers, abdominal swelling and heartburn, according to the new research.

Two of the intestinal worms Hippocrates referenced were called Helmins strongyle (described as a large round worm) and Ascaris (a small round worm). The Ascaris worm, study leader Piers Mitchell told Newsweek, could be either a pinworm (a small, white worm responsible for most intestinal worm infections in the United States) or a whipworm (common in dogs, but can live in the human large intestine, too). The Helmins strongyle worm likely corresponds to what today we call the roundworm (larger, with some types growing up to three feet long).

Previous researchers had excavated the discovery site on Kea in the 1960s and '70s, according to Mitchell, and when they stored the ancient skeletons they'd dug up, they left them covered in poop-derived, parasite egg-containing soil. …

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