Tapeworm DNA hints at discomforts of life in a medieval trading hub

Samples from ancient latrines pinpoint the squirming parasites that infested residents’ guts.


Centuries-old cesspits reveal that residents of a bustling port in medieval Germany were infested with a diverse range of parasitic worms — suggesting that trade helped to carry the worms far and wide.

Intestinal parasites such as tapeworms and roundworms were common in Europe before the advent of modern sanitation. Dr Adrian Smith, from the Department of Zoology, and his colleagues extracted DNA from parasite eggs in soil samples from graveyards and former latrines. The samples, collected from archaeological sites in what are now the United Kingdom, Germany, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, ranged from 350 to 5,600 years old.

The researchers found that samples from the historic port cities of Lübeck in Germany and Bristol in the United Kingdom harboured a more genetically diverse population of parasitic whipworms (Trichuris trichiura) than less-well-connected cities.

Before AD 1300, samples from Lübeck contained large numbers of the tapeworm Diphyllobothrium latum, commonly found in raw fish, but the species was abruptly replaced in the fourteenth century by the beef tapeworm Taenia saginata, which may indicate a sudden change in diet.


Read the full paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal SocietyMolecular archaeoparasitology identifies cultural changes in the Medieval Hanseatic trading centre of Lübeck

This article was first published by the Nature News here.