Britons have suffered from WORMS since the Bronze Age


Britons have suffered from WORMS since the Bronze Age: Ancient skeletons reveal parasite infections peaked during the Roman and Late Medieval periods

  • A new study shows that Britons have suffered from worms since the Bronze Age
  • It found that parasite infections peaked during Roman and Late Medieval periods
  • Things got better in Industrial period and after the Victorian Sanitary Revolution
  • Experts analysed ancient skeletons to find out scale of parasitic worm infections

Britons have suffered from worms since the Bronze Age, new research shows, with parasite infections peaking during the Roman and Late Medieval periods.

Things began to get better during the Industrial period, in part thanks to improvements in hygiene in parts of the UK, before the Victorian ‘Sanitary Revolution’ ushered in a nationwide reduction in infections.

Oxford researchers analysed ancient skeletons in an effort to establish the size and scale of parasitic worm infections in the UK over the course of history.

They hope that by understanding how parasitic worm infections changed in the past, it could help public health measures in regions of the world still experiencing problems today. 

Britons have suffered from worms since the Bronze Age, new research shows. Pictured, fish tapeworm eggs unearthed in a previous study into Bronze Age Britons in The Fens in Cambridgeshire

The Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire consisted of wooden houses built on stilts above the water. They believe the parasites were caught because the villagers foraged for food in the stagnant lakes and waterways around their homes

The Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire consisted of wooden houses built on stilts above the water. They believe the parasites were caught because the villagers foraged for food in the stagnant lakes and waterways around their homes

ONE IN FOUR PEOPLE IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE MAY HAVE HAD A PARASITIC WORM LIVING IN THEIR GUTS

Parasitic roundworms may have infested the guts of one-in-four people living in Europe during the Middle Ages, a study of hundreds of grave samples has found.

The worms — known to experts as helminths, and include whip- and tapeworms — feed by stealing nutrients from their hosts, which can lead to weakness and disease.

The parasitic worms spread between hosts via their eggs, which leave the body within faeces and can contaminate soil and water.

In their study, Oxford researchers took samples of human pelvises from 589 graves buried across seven different European sites that dated back to between the years 680–1700. 

Infections with parasitic worms are a big problem in some tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. 

But in the past, they were much more widespread and were common throughout Europe.

The research team looked for worm eggs in the soil from the region where the infected intestines of 464 human skeletons would have been, at 17 sites dating from the Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution.

They found that worm infections peaked in Britain during the Roman and Late Medieval periods, when infection rates were similar to those seen in the most affected regions today.

Things changed in the Industrial period. Worm infection rates differed a lot between different sites – some sites had little evidence of infection, while in others there was a lot of infection.

The researchers think that local changes in sanitation and hygiene may have reduced infection in some areas before nationwide changes during the Victorian ‘Sanitary Revolution’.

The co-first authors, Hannah Ryan and Patrik Flammer said: ‘Defining the patterns of infection with intestinal worms can help us to understand the health, diet and habits of past populations. 

‘More than that, defining the factors that led to changes in infection levels (without modern drugs) can provide support for approaches to control these infections in modern populations.’

Britons have suffered from worms since the Bronze Age, new research shows. Pictured, a human whipworm

Britons have suffered from worms since the Bronze Age, new research shows. Pictured, a human whipworm 

Humans are infected with roundworms and whipworms through contamination by faecal matter and catch some tapeworms by eating raw or undercooked meat or fish. 

The team will next use their array of parasite-based approaches to investigate other infections in the past. This includes more large-scale analyses of human burials, as well as continuing their ancient DNA work.

Their ambition is to employ a multidisciplinary approach, working closely with archaeologists, historians, parasitologists, biologists and other interested groups to use parasites to help understand the past.

The study has been published in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

BRONZE AGE BRITAIN: A PERIOD OF TOOLS, POTS AND WEAPONS LASTING NEARLY 1,500 YEARS

The Bronze Age in Britain began around 2,500 BC and lasted for nearly 1,500 years.

It was a time when sophisticated bronze tools, pots and weapons were brought over from continental Europe.

Skulls uncovered from this period are vastly different from Stone Age skulls, which suggests this period of migration brought new ideas and new blood from overseas. 

Bronze is made from 10 per cent tin and 90 per cent copper, both of which were in abundance at the time.

Crete appears to be a centre of expansion for the bronze trade in Europe and weapons first came over from the Mycenaeans in southern Russia.

It is widely believed bronze first came to Britain with the Beaker people who lived about 4,500 years ago in the temperate zones of Europe.

They received their name from their distinctive bell-shaped beakers, decorated in horizontal zones by finely toothed stamps.

The decorated pots are almost ubiquitous across Europe, and could have been used as drinking vessels or ceremonious urns.

Believed to be originally from Spain, the Beaker folk soon spread into central and western Europe in their search for metals.

Textile production was also under way at the time and people wore wrap-around skirts, tunics and cloaks. Men were generally clean-shaven and had long hair.

The dead were cremated or buried in small cemeteries near settlements.

This period was followed by the Iron Age which started around 650 BC and finished around 43 AD.

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