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Hallstatt: 3,000-year-old intestinal parasites of miners analysed

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(Vienna, 245-08-2023) Researchers in Vienna have obtained the world’s first gene sequences of the human roundworm from the Bronze Age, as well as the first gene sequences from prehistoric parasites in Austria. The analysis was conducted on human faeces from prehistoric miners in Hallstatt. The findings were published by a team from the Medical University Vienna, the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) and the Natural History Museum Vienna in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

An interdisciplinary study of more than 3,000-year-old human faeces has yielded new insights into health and nutrition in prehistory. Researchers from the Medical University Vienna, the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) and the Natural History Museum Vienna analysed the infestation of prehistoric miners in Hallstatt with intestinal parasites and were thus able to gain insights into their living conditions and eating habits.

Bronze Age roundworm sequenced for the first time
“Until recently, prehistoric human faeces was primarily analysed microscopically. With the emergence of new biomolecular analysis methods such as DNA and protein analysis, the horizon of knowledge has expanded enormously,” says Kerstin Kowarik from the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the OeAW. As part of the study, the first gene sequences of human roundworms from the Bronze Age worldwide and the first gene sequences of prehistoric parasites from Austria were obtained.  

Analysis of 35 human faeces samples from the prehistoric salt mines in Hallstatt show that infestation with roundworms and whipworms was widespread. The roundworm and whipworm are dioecious worms, and the females produce tens of thousands of eggs (up to 200,000) per day, which are excreted in the stool. These eggs mature over the course of two weeks to six months (depending on the species and temperature) and are taken up orally by the next person, usually through contaminated hands or food.

Hallstatt miners infected with only two types of parasites
Much more surprising, however, is the fact that only these two types of parasites could be detected. This is unusual for this era and allows interesting conclusions about cooking and eating habits. Why? Different intestinal parasites have different routes of infection. Those types of parasites that are ingested through the consumption of insufficiently heated meat and fish, such as pork tapeworm, beef tapeworm or fish tapeworm, are completely absent from the Hallstatt samples. From this it can be concluded that either only cooked meat was consumed or that the animals eaten were not infected with these parasites.

In the future, it will be important to compare the results of the Hallstatt study with other finds in Europe in order to research living conditions, eating habits, and microbiomes in the Bronze Age. “Paleogenetics is a comparatively young but exciting scientific discipline,” emphasises Julia Walochnik from the Medical University Vienna. “Decoding ancient genetic material allows far-reaching insights into evolution.”

Publication: Scientific Reports
First molecular data on the human roundworm Ascaris lumbricoides species complex from the Bronze and Iron Age in Hallstatt, Austria.
Barsch, E., Kowarik, K., Rodler, K. et al.