The findings paint a less than pretty picture of the health and hygiene of crusaders stationed on the Mediterranean island 800 years ago. Poor sanitation likely meant that food and water supplies were contaminated by fecal material, allowing parasitic infections to spread, the study suggests.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge dug into the pit of dried-out waste under a latrine in the remains of Saranda Kolones (Greek for “Forty Columns”) at Paphos, a city at the southwestern tip of Cyprus and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
English King Richard the Lionheart sold the island of Cyprus to the Frankish crusader Guy de Lusignan in May 1192. Archaeologists believe the Franks built Saranda Kolones to defend Paphos harbor soon after their occupation of the island began. But in 1222, the city was rocked by a powerful earthquake thought to be at least 7.0 in magnitude. Much of the fortress was left in ruins, never to be rebuilt, but the latrines on its lower floors survived.
Under a microscope, the researchers saw that the samples contained the eggs of two of the world’s most common and widespread intestinal parasites: whipworms (Trichuris trichiura), which cause the infection known as trichocephalus, and giant roundworms (Ascaris lumbricoides), the largest of the nematodes found in human intestines, with adults that can grow to more than 1 foot (30 centimeters) long.
People with a light load of these worms may experience no symptoms. But when whipworms and giant roundworms heavily colonize the digestive tract, they compete with their hosts for food, siphoning off the nutrients that would normally be absorbed in the intestines. Eggs of the parasites pass through the feces and spread to other hosts by ingestion (say, when a human doesn’t wash their hands and spreads the parasite to food or other objects that get consumed). That means infections are most common in places with poor hygiene and sanitation as well as areas where human waste is used as fertilizer or where people defecate in the soil.
“In these circumstances [it] is quite likely that medieval soldiers with a heavy parasite load would have been at increased risk of death from starvation during famine episodes such as long sieges or expeditions when supplies ran out,” the researchers wrote. “This is because they would have had to share the limited available food with their parasites.”