At Belgian archaeological sites, parasitology insights revealed

Johnica Morrow (left) and Elizabeth Rácz, doctoral students, are co-authors of a paper that examines the parasitology found in archaeological sites in Nivelles, Belgium. (Mekita Rivas | Natural Resources)
Johnica Morrow (left) and Elizabeth Rácz, doctoral students, are co-authors of a paper that examines the parasitology found in archaeological sites in Nivelles, Belgium. (Mekita Rivas | Natural Resources)

Locked within the crevices of a medieval cemetery in Nivelles, Belgium, the remains of an elderly woman – deceased for nearly a millennium – lay still.

In a new paper set to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in January, UNL researchers determine and recount her likely cause of death.

"The really incredible thing about this individual was that she suffered from extreme parasitism by two different types of parasitic roundworms," said Johnica Morrow, doctoral student in the School of Natural Resources who co-authored the paper, "Parasitology in an archaeological context: analysis of medieval burials in Nivelles, Belgium."

The woman hosted more than 200,000 eggs from the first parasite, Ascaris lumbricoides. The eggs of another parasite, Trichuris trichiura – or human whipworms – were found in even higher concentrations at more than 1,500,000 eggs.

"The parasite egg concentration values calculated for T. trichiura in this individual are unprecedented in the archaeoparasitological literature," Morrow said. "Having such a heavy parasite burden was likely to have compromised the individual's ability to carry out normal intestinal peristalsis, leading to potentially fatal constipation."

Analysis revealed that she had consumed an abundance of wheat glume that wasn't well-digested, which may have exacerbated the existing intestinal issues.

"Taking into account all of the data we have for this individual, we were able to conclude that the individual likely died of an intestinal obstruction caused at least in part by extreme parasitism," Morrow said. "It isn't often that a cause of death can be discussed based on parasite evidence, which made this work especially interesting."

The parasites and the parasite burdens of the Nivelles remains provide a unique biological and cultural view of the conditions found in medieval Europe, said Elizabeth Rácz, doctoral student in the School of Biological Sciences and co-author.

"The major findings from this paper are multifold," Rácz said. "They include the unprecedented levels of whipworm quantified from the individual (and) key aspects of parasite egg preservation. Overall, this paper is considered a landmark paper in the field of archaeoparasitology."

Archeaeologists from the Department of Archaeology of the Public Service of Wallonia in Wavre, Belgium led excavation efforts at the cemetery site in Nivelles.

Rácz said the international collaboration component is an important part of this project.

"It adds new perspectives on the work both academically and culturally," Rácz said. "Specifically, for the Nivelles publication, the international co-authors allowed me to obtain a true understanding of the provenance of the remains and the meaning of the findings for the populous at a local historical level."

All samples were processed for the recovery of pollen, parasite eggs, starches and macroremains by UNL's Palynology and Archaeoparasitology Laboratory in fall 2011. Karl Reinhard, professor and environmental archaeologist, and students taking his archaeoparasitology course analyzed the samples.

Reinhard's course is typically offered each fall, and is structured to provide students with both knowledge and hands-on research.

"Few courses give students, especially undergraduate students, the ability to develop independent research projects that actually lead to scientific publications," Morrow said. "This is a great course for students studying biology, anthropology, ecology, forensic science and related majors or minors."

Students interested in the course should contact Reinhard at or contact their academic adviser.

"The publication of this paper speaks to the significance of Dr. Reinhard's archaeoparasitology class," Morrow said. "I think (what) excites me the most is simply the fact that we got it ready for publication, we got good reviews with constructive critiques and that we got it accepted for publication. I'm beyond ecstatic to see all of our hard work finally come to fruition."

— Mekita Rivas, Natural Resources

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