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Parasite Eggs Shed Light on Diseases During the Iron Age

Dec 30, 2014 02:57 PM EST

Archaeologists recently discovered parasite eggs in a former Celtic settlement in Central Europe, and they are shedding light on diseases during the Iron Age, a new study describes.

Reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science, researchers at the Integrative Prehistory and Archaeological Science center (IPAS) at the University of Basel examined samples from the "Basel-Gasfabrik" Celtic settlement, at the present day site of Novartis. It's one of the most significant Celtic sites in Central Europe, dating back to around 100 BC.

As noted in the press release, the research team uncovered eggs of intestinal parasites - including roundworms (Ascaris sp.), whipworms, (Trichuris sp.) and liver flukes (Fasciolasp.) - in the backfill of 2,000-year-old storage and cellar pits from the Iron Age.

Usually evidence of the presence of parasite eggs comes from wet sieving of soil samples, but in this case researchers used a novel geoarchaeology-based method to capture them in their original settings. By determining the number and exact location of the eggs at their site of origin, this study offers new insights into diseases caused by these parasites during the Iron Age.

For instance, the findings indicate that the population inhabiting this Celtic settlement lived in poor sanitary conditions, as evidenced by the fact that the parasite eggs were washed out with water and dispersed in the soil. Researchers suggest that humans and animals lived alongside one another, and that diseases spread via these parasites were transmitted within and between species.

Specifically, preserved human and animal excrement may have been used as fertilizer for the settlement's vegetable gardens, carrying the parasites with them.

Researchers aren't exactly sure how the parasites were brought in, but they suspect that livestock were the culprits, which were brought in from surrounding areas to supply meat for the settlement's population.

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