Parasites from medieval latrines unlock secrets of human history

A radical new approach combining archaeology, genetics and microscopy can reveal long-forgotten secrets of human diet, sanitation and movement from studying parasites in ancient poo, according to new Oxford University research.

Parasites from medieval latrines unlock secrets of human history
Identification and enumeration of helminth eggs in Lübeck deposits reveal a temporal pattern of cestode infections.
Micrographs of parasite eggs in archaeological samples from Lübeck (a–d), images of eggs in Lübeck samples are
representative of those detected in other sites. Trichuris spp. (a), Ascaris spp. (b), Diphyllobothrium spp.
(c), and Taenia spp. (d) Scale bar: 10 µm.  [Credit: Patrik G. Flammer et al. 2018]

Researchers at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology and School of Archaeology have applied genetic analysis to 700-year-old parasites found in archaeological stool samples to understand a variety of characteristics of a human population. It is the first time this combined parasitological and ancient DNA (aDNA) approach has been applied to understand the epidemiology of historical parasites. The findings have just been published in Proceedings of The Royal Society B.

Gathered from medieval latrines in Lübeck, Germany, these armoured relics that passed through human faeces – nematode (roundworm) and cestode (tapeworms) eggs – have tough shells that withstand time and decay, perfectly preserving their DNA.

Lead researcher Adrian Smith said: ‘This new approach could be critical as an artefact independent tool for the study of people in the past. Human faeces were not typically traded but the parasites which can live in humans for 10 years or more are deposited wherever the people went.’

Analysis shows that high numbers of cestodes (tapeworms) were found in latrines from medieval Lübeck, one of the world’s leading ports during the Middle Ages. As freshwater fish was a known source of these cestodes the researchers could deduce that in Lübeck they had a diet high in freshwater fish which wasn’t effectively cooked, a practice distinct from other regions.

Further analysis reveals that at around 1300-1325 there was a shift from the fish-derived parasite to a beef -derived parasite, which indicates a change in diet, culinary culture and food sources.

Adrian Smith said: ‘People of Lübeck may have stopped eating raw freshwater fish or disrupted the cestode lifecycle. Interestingly, the shift in eating habits coincides with an increase in tannery and butchery based industry on the freshwater side of Lübeck and pollution may have interfered with the fish-derived parasite life cycle.’

The aDNA sequences from the nematodes which were found in a lot of archaeological sites also helped researchers identify that Lübeck contained the most diverse parasite population. This is consistent with its importance and high level of connectivity to other places. Significantly, the port of medieval Bristol was the second most diverse location and the aDNA data supports a link between Bristol and Lübeck.

Adrian Smith said: ‘We can use this approach to tell us a lot about specific locations including levels of sanitation, health status, dietary practices and connectivity of different sites. This might be of particular importance with populations where classical historical records are regarded as poor or insufficient. Our ambition is to develop a “molecular archaeoparasitological” map of Europe through time and space, using the parasites to inform us about human populations in the past.’

Source: University of Oxford [October 15, 2018]

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Extensive trade in fish between Egypt and Canaan 3,500 years ago

Some 3,500 years ago, there was already a brisk trade in fish on the shores of the southeastern Mediterranean Sea. This conclusion follows from the analysis of 100 fish teeth that were found at various archaeological sites in what is now Israel. The saltwater fish from which these teeth originated is the gilthead sea bream, which is also known as the dorade. It was caught in the Bardawil lagoon on the northern Sinai coast and then transported from Egypt to sites in the southern Levant. This fish transport persisted for about 2,000 years, beginning in the Late Bronze Age and continuing into the early Byzantine Period, roughly 300 to 600 AD.

Extensive trade in fish between Egypt and Canaan 3,500 years ago
Jaw with a durophagous dentition consisting of teeth with thick enamel of the gilthead sea bream (Sparus aurata):
The large molariform tooth was used for oxygen isotope analysis and to estimate the size of the fish
[Credit: 
© Guy Sisma-Ventura, Israel]

“Our examination of the teeth revealed that the sea bream must have come from a very saline waterbody, containing much more salt than the water in the Mediterranean Sea,” said Professor Thomas Tütken of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The geoscientist participated in the study together with colleagues from Israel and Göttingen. The Bardawil lagoon formed 4,000 years ago, when the sea level finally stabilized after the end of the last Ice Age. The lagoon was fished intensively and was the point of origin of an extensive fish trade.
As demonstrated by archaeological finds, fishing was an important economic factor for many ancient cultures. In the southern Levant, the gilthead sea bream with the scientific name of Sparus aurata was already being fished by local costal fishermen 50,000 years ago. More exotic fish, such as the Nile perch, were already being traded between Egypt and Canaan over 5,000 years ago. However, the current study shows the extent to which the trade between the neighbours increased in the Late Bronze Age and continued for 2,000 years into the Byzantine Period.

Extensive trade in fish between Egypt and Canaan 3,500 years ago
Changes of the oxygen isotopes in the crushing teeth as well as the fish body mass over the last 10,000 years:
 From the Late Bronze Age, the sea bream originated from the hypersaline Bardawil lagoon but their
body mass was smaller than before, which is an indication of intensification of fishing
[Credit: © Thomas Tütken, JGU]

“The Bardawil lagoon was apparently a major source of fish and the starting point for the fish deliveries to Canaan, today’s Israel, even though the sea bream could have been caught there locally,” stated co-author Professor Andreas Pack from the University of Göttingen.

Fish teeth document over 2,000 years of trade

Gilthead sea bream are a food fish that primarily feed on crabs and mussels. They have a durophagous dentition with button-shaped teeth that enable them to crush the shells to get at the flesh. For the purposes of the study, 100 large shell-cracking teeth of gilthead sea bream were examined. The teeth originate from 12 archaeological sites in the southern Levant, some of which lie inland, some on the coast, and cover a time period from the Neolithic to the Byzantine Period.

One approach of the researchers was to analyze the content of the oxygen isotopes ^18O and ^16O in the tooth enamel of the sea bream. The ratio of ^18O to ^16O provides information on the evaporation rate and thus on the salt content of the surrounding water in which the fish lived. In addition, the researchers were able to estimate the body size of the fish on the basis of the size of the shell-cracking teeth.

Extensive trade in fish between Egypt and Canaan 3,500 years ago
Map of the archaeological sites in Israel where the sea bream teeth analyzed were found. Also shown
is the Bardawil lagoon on the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula, from which the sea bream
 remains found in Israel dating back as far as the Late Bronze Age primarily originated
[Credit: © Thomas Tütken, JGU]

The analyses showed that some of the gilthead sea bream originated from the southeastern Mediterranean but that roughly three out of every four must have lived in a very saline body of water. The only water that comes into question in the locality is that of the Bardawil lagoon, the hypersaline water of which has a salt content of 3.9 to 7.4 percent, providing the perfect environment for the growth of sea bream. The Bardawil lagoon on the Sinai coast is approximately 30 kilometers long, 14 kilometers wide, and has a maximum depth of 3 meters. It is separated from the Mediterranean by a narrow sand bar.

“There was a mainland route from there to Canaan, but the fish were probably first dried and then transported by sea,” added Tütken. Even back then, sea bream were probably a very popular food fish, although it is impossible to estimate actual quantities consumed. However, it became apparent that the fish traded from the period of the Late Bronze Age were significantly smaller than in the previous era.

According to the researchers, this reduction in body size is a sign of an increase in the intensity of fishing that led to a depletion of stocks, which is to be witnessed also in modern times. “It would seem that fishing and the trade of fish expanded significantly, in fact to such a degree that the fish did not have the chance to grow as large,” continued Tütken, pointing out that this was an early form of the systematic commercial exploitation of fish, a type of proto-aquaculture, which persisted for some 2,000 years.

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

Source: Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz [October 15, 2018]

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Georadar detects a Viking ship in Norway

Archaeologists armed with a motorized high resolution georadar have found a Viking ship and a large number of burial mounds and longhouses in Østfold County in Norway.

Georadar detects a Viking ship in Norway
The outline of the Viking ship can clearly be seen in this animation of the radar data
[Credit: Lars Gustavsen, NIKU]

The discoveries were made by archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) with technology developed by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (LBI ArchPro).
“We are certain that there is a ship there, but how much is preserved is hard to say before further investigation”, says Morten Hanisch, county conservator in Østfold.

“This find is incredibly exciting as we only know three well-preserved Viking ship finds in Norway excavated long time ago. This new ship will certainly be of great historical significance as it can be investigated with all modern means of archaeology”, says Dr. Knut Paasche, Head of the Department of Digital Archaeology at NIKU, and an expert on Viking ships.

Georadar detects a Viking ship in Norway
The ship burial forms part of a larger mound cemetery and settlement site from the Iron Age
 next to the monumental Jell Mound [Credit: Lars Gustavsen, NIKU]

The Viking ship find is just below the topsoil, at a depth of approximately 50 cm initially buried in a burial mound. The digital data visualisations reveal a large and well-defined 20 m long ship-shaped structure. The data indicate that the lower part of the ship is still preserved. Further non-invasive investigations are planned to digitally map the unique find and the wider landscape.
The sensational find is located at Viksletta right next to the monumental Jelle mound in Østfold County, Norway. The team has discovered the traces of at least eight so far unknown burial mounds destroyed by ploughing. But with the help of georadar, the remnants and enclosing ditches of these massive monuments can still be mapped in detail.

One of the former mounds clearly shows the remains of a Viking ship initially buried in the mound. There are clear indications that the ship’s keel and floor timbers are preserved in the grave. Based on other Viking ship finds the archaeologists worked out a first hypothetical reconstruction of the ship.

Georadar detects a Viking ship in Norway
The Viking ship was found by georadar at Viksletta right next to the monumental
Jell Mound in Østfold [Credit: Lars Gustavsen, NIKU]

Beside the monumental burial mounds, the georadar data revealed 5 longhouses – some of them remarkably large – a situation comparable to the site Borre in Vestfold County, on the opposite side of the Oslofjord.
“The ship burial does not exist in isolation, but forms part of a cemetery which is clearly designed to display power and influence”, says archaeologist Lars Gustavsen, project leader from NIKU

The archaeologists from NIKU are now proposing a research project to further investigate the Jellestad ship, the site and the surrounding landscape with non-invasive methods before any excavations. It is planned to use additional non-invasive geophysical methods which will provide more insight into the ground and provide additional facts on the ship without having to dig it up and expose it to the elements.

Nevertheless, the professionals do not rule out that it may be necessary to make an excavation in the long term.

Source: Norsk institutt for kulturminneforskning [October 15, 2018]

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