hallstatt

Parasites in prehistoric feces


Under the very special conditions existing in the salt mines, not only food remnants, pieces of clothing and tools have been preserved in the salt, but also the miners’ excrement, and in it, the hard eggs of intestinal worms. Like all humans living before and after them, people of the Hallstatt period were infected with parasites.
The excrement preserved in the salt mine attracted attention as early as 1868. At that time, it was not identified as human, but described as ‘excrement of a large domestic animal.’ Although its constituents were analysed more precisely in the years following, and although the excrement could be identified as human, several decades passed before it was subjected to detailed parasitological analyses.

Worm infections
Symptoms of intestinal worms
Body lice
Transmission of body lice
Symptoms of body lice
 

Worm infections

As in many other similar analyses, the parasitic eggs most frequently found in the Hallstatt samples were whipworm and roundworm eggs. Both are still widespread parasites frequently found in humans. The worm eggs are excreted through the faeces, and infectious larvae develop in the open. The worm eggs are acquired by ingestion. Children are particularly vulnerable because they tend to put things into their mouths. People may also be infected through the fertilisation of field crops and vegetables with human manure or by drinking polluted water. The miners could however not have been contaminated inside the mine, because the low temperature would not allow the eggs to reach maturity.
 

Symptoms of intestinal worms

These worm eggs cause various disagreeable symptoms such as abdominal pain, colic, and diarrhoea, but also constipation. In most cases, the disease is relatively harmless; massive infestations, however, may lead to severe complications.
 

Body lice

In addition to intestinal worms, the analyses have produced evidence of another parasite affecting the miners: the body louse. The outer shells of these eggs (nits) have been preserved in pieces of clothing. Body lice are a serious threat, because they may transmit the pathogenic agents of a number of infectious diseases, for instance spotted fever.
 

Transmission of body lice

The lice are transmitted person-to-person by body contact or exchanging clothes. The success of salt mining attracted many people, who lived and worked in rather cramped and unhygienic conditions that favoured the propagation and transmission of parasites.
 

Symptoms of body lice

The most frequent complaints would have been abdominal pain and itching, with worms found in the faeces and reddened skin, and sometimes perhaps life-threatening fever. The people of the time had of course no knowledge about the mechanisms of parasite transmission.

(Hoerweg, C. – Sattmann, H. – Picher, O. – Aspoeck, H.)