An international team of archaeologists has found 8,000-year-old eggs of the whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) in coprolites (fossilized feces) from Çatalhöyük, a prehistoric settlement inhabited from about 7100 to 5600 BCE — the earliest archaeological evidence for intestinal parasite infection in the mainland Near East.

This is an artist's impression of Çatalhöyük. Image credit: Dan Lewandowski.

This is an artist’s impression of Çatalhöyük. Image credit: Dan Lewandowski.

Çatalhöyük is one of the largest and best preserved Neolithic sites in the world. It is located southeast of the modern Turkish city of Konya, about 90 miles (145 km) from Mount Hasan.

The population of Çatalhöyük were early farmers, growing crops such as wheat and barley, and herding sheep and goats.

The toilet was first invented in the 4th millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, 3,000 years later than when Çatalhöyük flourished.

It is thought the people living at Çatalhöyük either went to the rubbish tip (midden) to open their bowels, or carried their feces from their houses to the midden in a vessel or basket to dispose of them.

“We would expect this to have put the population at risk of diseases spread by contact with human feces, and explains why they were vulnerable to contracting whipworm,” said Dr. Marissa Ledger, a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

“As writing was only invented 3,000 years after the time of Çatalhöyük, the people were unable to record what happened to them during their lives. This research enables us for the first time to imagine the symptoms felt by some of the prehistoric people living at Çatalhöyük who were infected by this parasite.”

To look for the eggs of intestinal parasites, Dr. Ledger and colleagues used microscopy to study the coprolites from Çatalhöyük. The samples dated from 7,100-6150 BCE.

To determine whether the coprolites excavated from the midden were from human or animal feces, they were analyzed for sterols and bile acids. This analysis demonstrated that the coprolites were of human origin.

Further microscopic analysis showed that eggs of whipworm were present in two of the coprolites, demonstrating that people from the prehistoric village were infected by this intestinal parasite.

“It was a special moment to identify parasite eggs over 8,000 years old,” said Dr. Evilena Anastasiou, from the University of Cambridge.

“Now we need to find ancient fecal material from prehistoric hunter-gathers in the Near East, to help us understand how this change in lifestyle affected their diseases,” said Dr. Piers Mitchell, also from the University of Cambridge.

The findings were published today in the journal Antiquity.

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Marissa L. Ledger et al. Parasite infection at the early farming community of Çatalhöyük. Antiquity, published online May 31, 2019; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2019.61