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Man, animals and their parasites: A long story comes to light

by Christine LEFEVRE - published on , updated on

Article de Françoise LE MORT et Marjan MASHKOUR

Avec la participation de Cécile CALLOU et Jean-Bernard HUCHET

Palaeoparasitology emerged as a new field of research during the 60s through a mutual interest of archaeologists and parasitologists. As a blooming field of research, it contributes to the understanding of past societies and their environment and to the reconstruction of diet and sanitary conditions. Paleoparasites may act as a possible proxy for cultural diffusion when the migrations of the parasites can be evidenced through the mobility of humans and animals.

During archaeological excavations, we may find two categories of parasites, ectoparasites (lice, ticks, fleas, ergot sclerotia…) or endoparasites (eggs). Ancient human burials and latrines are the most appropriate contexts for the recovery of fossilised parasites. Paleoparasitological studies have demonstrated, for example, that the well-known tapeworm, already infested human populations during the 8th millennium BC, as early as the beginnings of animal domestication.

Because of its high potential there is today an increasing interest for this field of research among archaeologists, archaeozoologists, archaeobotanists and biological anthropologists. The recent publication of a special issue devoted to Palaeoparasitology in the International Journal of Paleopathology is a testimony of this. The first part of the volume, Palaeoparasitology I is edited by Françoise Le Mort (CNRS, UMR Archéorient) and Marjan Mashkour (CNRS, UMR Archéozoologie, archéobotanique). Articles published here cover varied subjects such as: the history of infectious diseases, bird ectoparasites found in eiderdown processing site of the 19th century in Iceland, dog fleas found on an Egyptian mummy of the Roman period. Other studies on South-American cases show how the compulsory living conditions of Native Americans of Brazil imposed by European colonists favoured the transmission of parasitic diseases and how the appearance of new pathologies after the Conquest has affected the sub continent. In another paper, through a diachronic review we also learn about the world distribution of the fish tapeworm and its oldest occurrence around 14 000 years ago in the Old world, or even the evidence of older parasites of 30000 years in the northern parts of Asia, where climatic conditions favour the preservation of the parasite eggs.

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Marjan Mashkour

UMR 7209 Archéozoologie, archéobotanique : sociétés, pratiques et environnements

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Françoise Le Mort

UMR 5133 Archéorient : environnements et sociétés de l’Orient ancien

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