Ancient Poop Contains First Evidence of Parasites Described by Hippocrates

Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati
Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati

The long-held mystery of Hippocrates and the parasitic worms has finally been solved, and it’s all thanks to a few samples of ancient poop.

Researchers don’t know much about the parasites that plagued the Greeks thousands of years ago, and what they do know is largely from the Hippocratic Corpus, the medical texts that the father of medicine and his students put together between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. Modern historians have spent years trying to figure out which diseases and parasites Hippocrates and his followers were referring to in their writing, relying solely on their descriptions to guess at what ailments the ancient Greeks might have suffered from. Now, they finally have concrete evidence of the existence of some of the intestinal worms Hippocrates mentioned, Helmins strongyle and Ascaris.

As part of a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, an international group of researchers analyzed the ancient remains of feces in 25 prehistoric burials on the Greek island of Kea to determine what parasites the people were carrying when they died. Using microscopes, they looked at the soil (formed by the decomposed poop) found on the pelvic bones of skeletons dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze, and Roman periods.

A roundworm egg under the microscope
A roundworm egg
Elsevier

Around 16 percent of the burials they studied contained evidence of parasites. In these ancient fecal samples, they found the eggs of two different parasitic species. In the soil taken from the skeletons dating back to the Neolithic period, they found whipworm eggs, and in the soil taken from the Bronze Age skeletons, roundworm.

With this information, researchers deduced that what Hippocrates called the Helmins strongyle worm was probably what modern doctors would call roundworm. The Ascaris worm probably referred to two different parasites, they conclude, known today as pinworm (which was not found in this analysis) and whipworm (pictured below).

Whipworm under a microscope
A whipworm egg
Elsevier

Though historians already hypothesized that Hippocrates's patients on Kea had roundworm, the Ascaris finding comes as a particular surprise. Previous research based solely on Hippocrates’s writing rather than physical evidence suggested that what he called Ascaris was probably a pinworm, and another worm he mentioned, Helmins plateia, was probably a tapeworm. But the current research didn’t turn up any evidence of either of those two worms. Instead of pinworm eggs, the researchers found whipworm, another worm that’s similarly small and round. (Pinworms may very well have existed in ancient Greece, the researchers caution, since evidence of their fragile eggs could easily have been lost to time.) The soil analysis has already changed what we know about the intestinal woes of the ancient Greeks of Kea.

More importantly, this study provides the earliest evidence of ancient Greece’s parasitic worm population, proving yet again that ancient poop is one of the world’s most important scientific resources.

A (Still-Sharp) Medieval Sword Was Pulled from a Sewer in Denmark

Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

If the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur is anything to go by, anyone who successfully extracts a sword in a stone will be treated like royalty. The fable doesn’t say anything about the reward one gets for removing a medieval weapon from feces, though.

As Smithsonian reports, a pipe layer and an engineer recently found a sword from the medieval era while doing construction work on a sewer in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city. The relic was plucked from a layer of waste that had accumulated atop an old slab of pavement that once ran through the city.

Most remarkably, the sword was still intact—and the blade still sharp. It’s about 3.5 feet long and of extremely high quality, according to archaeologists. The sword may have been used between 1100 and 1400, but the likeliest explanation is that it got separated from its owner sometime in the 14th century. “Findings from here have always pointed to the 1300s, so the sword must have ended up in the earth in this century,” archaeologist Kenneth Nielsen said in a translated statement.

The sword next to a tape measure
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

It’s rare for such an important historical artifact to turn up in such an unlikely—and unhygienic—place. Swords were valuable and highly prized possessions, and they were treated as such. They were typically buried with their owners, but no graves are situated above the sewer where the weapon was found.

The country’s history offers some clues about what may have transpired, though. In the 1300s, power struggles and internecine war were common throughout Denmark. “The best explanation we can come up with is that the owner of the sword was defeated in a battle,” Nielsen told The Local Denmark. “In the tumult, it was then trod down into the layer of mud that formed the street back then.”

Similarly, a 14th-century sword was found in a Polish peat bog in 2017, and archaeologists suspect the owner either sunk into the marsh and met a grisly end, or merely dropped his weapon and was unable to retrieve it.

While these questions will likely remain unanswered, members of the public will have the chance to admire the Danish "sewer sword" in all its glory at the Aalborg Historiske Museum (Aalborg Historical Museum), which is located near the site where the sword was found. Fortunately for future visitors, it will be cleaned and preserved first.

[h/t Smithsonian]

George Pollard Jr., Unlucky Captain of the Ship That Inspired Moby-Dick

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab during the shooting of the 1956 film Moby Dick
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab during the shooting of the 1956 film Moby Dick
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Captain George Pollard Jr. had no choice but to eat his cousin. Crammed aboard a small whaleboat with some of his crew, the captain had been drifting aimlessly in the South Pacific for more than two months. The sun was relentless, their thirst was unquenchable, and the hull was leaking. Saltwater had leached into the men’s stash of bread, and one by one, Pollard’s men died of starvation—and were promptly devoured by the hungry survivors.

It was a nightmare scenario. Weeks earlier, in November 1820, Pollard's crew had been pursuing (and harpooning) a pod of sperm whales when an angry 85-foot-long whale barreled head-on into the captain's ship, The Essex of Nantucket, sending it to the ocean's bottom. The 20 survivors scrambled into three small whaleboats, which eventually became separated during a storm. After two and a half months at sea, the days began to blur and the stockpile of food dwindled, and the four men remaining on Pollard’s boat realized they were all going to starve if food didn’t soon become available. So they agreed to draw lots: Whoever pulled the short stick would volunteer to be shot and eaten.

It was a terribly irony. When the Essex sank, the men had been relatively close to the Marquesas Islands, but Pollard's men were afraid of landing there—the islands were rumored to be full of cannibals. Pollard agreed to follow a longer route, hoping to drift south and then east in hopes of reaching Chile. That decision, however, had made cannibals of the men on board.

As for the drawing of lots, Pollard’s 18-year-old cousin, Owen Coffin, was the unlucky loser. When Pollard insisted that he take the young man's place, Coffin refused—and was summarily shot in the head. “He was soon dispatched,” Pollard grimly recalled, “and nothing of him left.” About two weeks later, Pollard's boat was discovered. By that point, the two surviving men—Pollard and sailor Charles Ramsdell—had resorted to drinking their own urine and were found gnawing on the bones of their deceased mates.

The ordeal would haunt Captain Pollard. Before the voyage, he had promised Coffin’s mother that the boy would return home safely, and his failure to keep Coffin alive plagued Pollard's conscience. After surviving a second shipwreck, the captain took a job on sturdy land as Nantucket's night watchman, where he looked over the streets and wharves.

Three decades later, when Pollard was 60, Herman Melville—fresh from finishing Moby-Dick—paid the aging skipper a visit. Pollard didn’t know about the book, and the two didn’t exchange many words. But Melville harbored a secret: The sinking of the Essex had inspired his novel. (We should caution that Melville did not base the monomaniacal character of Ahab on Pollard himself. "While Melville was inspired by Pollard's adventures," the BBC says, "the unlucky seafarer's character is not thought to have been the basis for the novel's obsessive Capt Ahab.")

Melville marveled at the tormented man, saying of his encounter: “To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.” In fact, Melville mentioned Pollard in his epic Clarel, the longest poem in American literature.

Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.

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