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Left: whipworm egg taken from ancient Greek faecal matter. Right: excavation of the Bronze Age site of Ayia Irini on the island of Kea. Photos: (left) Piers Mitchell/Elsevier. (Right) University of Cincinnati

The parasitic infections were first described by Hippocrates, the father of medicine, in reports from thousands of years ago. The vomiting of wiggling worms, intense fevers, weakness, diarrhea and swelling of the abdomen gave modern readers clues as to the infections that the revered Greek innovator was treating.

But now, detailed microscopy has isolated the traces of the parasites on bones unearth from ancient graves, according to a new paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports by a team from the University of Cambridge.

“Find(ing) the eggs of intestinal parasites as early as the Neolithic period in Greece is a key advance in our field,” said Evilena Anastasiou, one of the authors.

“Until now we only had estimates from historians as to what kinds of parasites were described in the ancient Greek medical texts,” added Piers Mitchell, the Cambridge archaeologist who led the work.

The 25 burials were located on the island of Kea, off the coast of Greece in the western part of the Aegean Sea. (Hippocrates himself was from Kos, which is on the eastern part of the Aegean, closer to Asia Minor).

The remains date from prehistory to the Byzantine Empire.

Four of the skeletal remains, particularly on the pelvic bones, tested positive for the intestinal helminths. The remains dated from the 4th millennium B.C., the late Bronze Age, and into the Roman period.

The two species were whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) and roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides).

The Hippocrates-penned medical texts from the 5th century B.C. described intestinal worms as Helmins stronyle, Ascaris, and Helmina plateia.

The Ascaris worm described by Hippocrates may have thus been referring to two different but similar parasites, pinworm and whipworm, said Mitchell in a Cambridge release describing the work.

“The study of ancient parasites shows how we can combine archaeology with history of medicine to better understand the discoveries of key early scientists and medical practitioners,” the study authors conclude.

“Our research confirms some aspects of what the historians thought, but also adds new information that the historians did not expect, such as that whipworm was present,” added Mitchell.

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