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Des sources du savoir aux médicaments du futur

Jacques Fleurentin
Jean-Marie Pelt
Guy Mazars

1. Origine des pharmacopées traditionnelles

Identification of helminth eggs in coprolithes from the Neolithic age

Françoise Bouchet


Three neolithic sites, one in France (Chalain, in the Jura Mountains) and two in Switzerland (Arbon, close to the Bodensee, and Concise, close to Lake of Neuchatel) were submitted to palaeoparasitological studies. Numerous well preserved eggs of parasitic intestinal worms were discovered and examined from the point of view of morphology and morphometry. Five parasites could thus be identified: Trichuris sp., Fasciola sp., Diphyllobotbrium sp., Capillaria sp., Dioctophymus sp.
Special attention was paid to the latter two as they pose the question of the emergence and disappearance of the corresponding diseases in the prehistoric and historic periods. These two parasitoses (Capillariosis and Dioctophymosis) have now become anecdotal phenomena in modern European countries. However, as the helminth eggs are often found in association with pollens and spores, we can assume that the latter were used as part of a medical treatment.

Texte intégral

1Parasitology has for a long time neglected the historical dimension of parasites and the diseases they transmit, forgetting that our knowledge is very recent and does not really go beyond the limits of the last century. The kind of parasitology that we submit to our students offers an image of the issue that represents the scope of the knowledge that we have collected in the course of the last century. In that respect, we should remind that that A. Laveran (Nobel Prize winner in 1907) provided the first description of the agent of malaria that he had identified in a parasitized red blood cell less than one century ago.

2What kinds of parasitoses did our ancestors suffer in a more or less remote past? Where can we find support to detect these parasitoses? These are two questions - among many more - for which Paleoparasitology can provide tentative information. This pioneering work is gradually developing by collecting fresh data in both the Old and New World.

Which forms? Which traces?

3Helminths are parasitic worms developing in the digestive tract of men and animals; they release into the environment a great number of eggs in a shell made up of several membranes of various thickness. This resistant structure, composed of chitin and lipids, protects the embryo against the aggressions from the outer world. It makes it possible to perpetuate the biological cycle and sustain the capacity of the worm to cause infection. Paleoparasitologic investigation brings to light such shells found in fossilized form when taphonomic conditions have been favorable for conservation. These microscopic eggs, whose size ranges from 30 to 160 mm testify to the presence of certain parasitoses at a given time and provide information about the individual who hosted the parasite. We may then deduct valuable information about the diet, the hygiene, the cooking procedures, etc.

Where to investigate? Which material to study? How to extract?

4In some countries such as Egypt and Peru where momification was common practice, the study of mummified tissues has provided significant information on specific parasitoses that had developed before our era (2, 3, 10, 1 2, 28). The material used in this study originates from archaeological excavation sites. It is composed of coprolithes (fossilized faeces) and the underlying sediments which captured helminth eggs which migrate per descensum at the time of early diagenesis (water loss).

5Though the composition of helminth eggshells is close to that of pollen hulls, the the method used in paleoparasitology for extraction is different (4, 5, 9) from that applied in palynology. After a sedimentological study of the various mineral and organic phases making up the archaeological deposit and/or a study of the coprolithes according to the thin-blade procedure in polarized microscopy, the samples are re-hydrated and then filtered in a multilayered fine-mesh sieve. (360, 160, 50, 25 mm). The last two deposits in the sieve are analyzed after being submitted to a series of physicochemical reactions based on sedimentation and flotation.

Our selection: the Neolithic age

6We paid special attention to this prehistoric era as it corresponds to a period when people settled down and became sedentary and agriculture and breeding developed. As a consequence, promiscuity between men and animals generated the first cases of anthro- pozoonosis (forms of parasitosis common to humans and animals).

7We had access to three lakeside cities in the the French and Swiss Jura Mountains dating back to between the 36th and 30th centuries B. C.: Chalain (Lake Chalain in France) (6, 8, 15), Arbon, (Lake of Constance or Bodensee in Switzerland) and Concise (Lake Neufchâtel in Switzerland). The amphibian environment of the sites permitted an exceptional state of conservation for all archaeological material, including the parasitic elements (1, 14, 15).

8Certain parasitoses were identified on all three sites, whereas some cases are proper to one or the other village.

Which forms of parasitosis?

9Some specimens of tenia (Taenia sp. - 30μm) embryophores still have fossilized fangs, which testify to a diet including grilled meat (pork, wild boar, beef). This fact is supported by the presence of heating stones close to the dwellings and bone remainders with charcoaled ends.

10The presence of eggs of Fasciola sp., (130x75μm), a species responsible for a serious form of hepatitis (distomatosis), betrays the consumption of salad polluted by the faeces of animals carrying the parasites. The plants involved in this vegetarian diet are watercress (Nasturtium officinal), dandelion (Taraxacum dens leonis) or bear garlic (Allium ursinum) whose pollen predominates in particular in the palynologie spectrum of Chalain. To confirm the parasitic cycle, we found additional support when we observed the presence, in the malacologie left-overs, of small molluscs acting as intermediate hosts: limneas (in particular Limmnea truncatula). Thus the pieces of information in the jig-saw puzzle began to fit together and various assumptions overlapped and complemented each other.

11Reasoning on the basis of the eggs of Bothriocephalus (Diphyllobothrium sp. - 70 x 65 μm) - a hematophagous tapeworm which, in its adult phase, can have a length of 10 to 12 meters - was more complex. Its heteroxenic cycle includes a transformation as a cyclops, which is itself ingested by a fish of the salmonidae family. The translucent larva of the worm settles in the flesh or the fillets of the fish, in particular trout truite (Salmo trutta). Man is infested when eating these fillets either raw or insufficiently cooked. This parasitosis may still occur in the region of Alpine lakes and the latest epidemic dates back to 1990 (26). Macroscopic remainders of ichthyofauna (vertebrae and bones) are extremely rare in the siftings carried out by archaeologists (14). But the divergence in results is only apparent as it is common practice for the communities having no means of conservation to process the fish at the place where it was caught, select the fillets and transport them to the village after processing them by smoking (16). But we know that this treatment does not eliminate the Bothriocephale larvae.

12Other cases are even stranger. On the Arbon site, for example, two coprolithes included rare eggs assigned to Dioctophymus sp (65x40μm) species. This worm gnaws at the kidneys of its host. Only 20 human cases have been reported to date. The cycle of this worm is also heteroxenic and includes the lombric and the frog. The larvae are to be found in the mesenter of the latter amphibians. Our diet includes in modern times only eviscerated animals, but in the Neolithic era, the frogs were probably eaten as a whole after being grilled. We will need further evidence from other sites to confirm or cancel this assumption.

13In Chalain, we identified a considerable number of eggs of Capillaria sp (70x31μm)(8). Capillaria are hair-thin worms, owing their name to this characteristic (25). The reticulated aspect of the egg shell is due to a specific mesh-like ornamentation precluding any possibility of morphological confusion with the eggs of the Trichuris species. This form of parasitosis is business rather for vets than for doctors. Concerning human pathology, the literature mentions only 11 cases of confirmed hepatic capillariosis in Europe and 9 cases of pulmonary capillariosis (even rarer) detected in the whole world. However, in Chalain, 21 coprolithes out of 23 contained eggs of Capillaria sp Which assumptions can be put forward? Which line of reasoning can be proposed? The present cycle of capillariosis calls for a period of life in synanthrope rodents (Mus or Rattus) and some small wild mammals (Apodemus sp), (Microtus sp.), (Sorex. sp.) (20). During the Neolithic era, between 3000 and 3500 B. C., rats and mice, the main carriers of these parasitoses, had not yet settled in this part of Western Europe (29). It was not until the advent of the Bronze age, about 1500 B. C., i.e. 15 centuries later, that the cycle was in agreement with the picture that we have today. It is therefore necessary to look for other "virus repositories" in the Neolithic age. According to the archeozoologic context, potentialities mostly refer to badgers (Meles sp), polecats (Mustela sp.) and above all hedgehogs (Erinaceus sp.).

Which treatment?

14Even if the results supplied by our paleoparasitologic analyses provide information on the presence of parasitoses, it is difficult to evaluate the kind of medication used in the Neolithic era. The microscopic observation of the coprolithes, the identification of spores or mechanical rings of Fern suggest that there existed some form of anthelminthic treatment. The root of the male fern was indeed mentioned in the most ancient Codex and the earliest documents mentioning its use date back to the Medical Treatise by Dioscorides (1st century A.D.). It is therefore quite possible that this treatment was used in the Neolithic era.

15Another assumption refers to the Diphyllobothriidae. We know of some ethnic communities using the muscles of Amphibians carrying Spirometra sp. larvae as parasites in local application (16) to accelerate cicatrization. The abundance of frog bones in Chalain is an indication that these animals might have been consumed as food, but we can also imagine that it was used as a cataplasm for therapeutic purposes as some ethnic communities currently do. We That this mode of medication was used in the Neolithic age is no more than an assumption and it seems to be beyond verification.


16As the earliest analyses in Paleoparasitology offer positive results, it seems that certain parasitoses experienced peaks of emergence during the various prehistoric or historical eras. Programs in the history of parasitic epidemiology should be set up in the years to come. Research on some archeological sites in the Old World was limited to an inventory of parasitic elements (4, 17, 19, 21, 24, 27) but few authors have examined the biological problems induced by the variability of the parasite-host relations (5, 7, 12, 18, 23). It seems that the parasitic cycles have changed in the course of time; they will probably supply more unexpected information due to their dynamism and their adaptability. In addition, the wide range of host-parasite relations should be integrated into time depth and the paleo-environnemental context and include the possibility of having vertical or transverse host-to-host transmission.



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UFR de Pharmacie, Laboratoire de Paléoparasitologie Associé CNRS ESA 8045 51, rue Cognacq-Jay 51 100 Reims - France

© IRD Éditions, 2002

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