Researchers have found evidence of a parasitic infection in the skeletal remains of an individual that lived between 6,500-6,000 years ago in an early farming settlement of northern Syria.

Schistosoma, Parasitic schistosoma worm. Photo: David Williams, Adult male schistosoma, Parasitic Worm Discovered In Ancient Tomb, The question of when and where schistosomes first started to cause disease in our ancestors is, however, still unanswered,
Parasitic schistosoma worm. Photo: David Williams

The discovery represents not only the earliest example of human infection with this particular parasite, but also the first demonstration that advances in technology could have encouraged the spread of disease. The study has been published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The earliest archeological example of schistosome infection was found in ancient Egyptian mummies that dated as far back as 5,200 years ago, but no one knows when this parasite started infecting humans.

The researchers hypothesize that crop irrigation employed thousands of years ago in the Middle East enabled the spread of schistosomiasis into humans living in this area, prompting the immense disease burden that still occurs today.

What is schistosomiasis?

Schistosomiasis, also called bilharzia, is a disease caused by trematode flatworms belonging to the genus Schistosoma. Individuals can become infected if they come into contact with larval forms of the parasite, called cercariae, which are released by certain types of freshwater snails. The larvae then develop into adult worms which reside in the blood vessels.

Once mature, the females produce eggs that are shed in the urine or feces but some can become stuck in the intestines or bladder, causing a variety of ailments if untreated such as kidney failure and bladder cancer.

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