Clarifying Prehistoric Parasitism from a Complementary Morphological and Molecular Approach

J Archaeol Sci. 2013 Jul 1;40(7):3060-3066. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.03.010.


This paper reports an approach to the identification of prehistoric parasitic infection, which integrates traditional morphological methods with molecular methods. The approach includes the strengths of each method while mitigating the limitations. Demonstrating the efficacy of this approach, we provide a case study from a 1,400 year old desiccated fecal sample from La Cueva de los Muertos Chiquitos, archaeological site, near Rio Zape, Durango, Mexico. Traditionally prepared microscope slides were processed via microscopy and tentative ascarids were identified. Information regarding the parasites' developmental stage was recorded. DNA was then extracted directly from the slide material. From this DNA extract, a small segment of the 18S ribosomal RNA gene variant that is specific to Ascaris, and its phylogenetically close relatives, was targeted for PCR amplification and sequencing. Phylogenetic analysis of the DNA sequence best matched a member of physalopterids, rather than ascarids, with a single exception of a match to Contracaecum spiculigerum. Subsequent extractions, amplifications and sequencing of the original rehydrated coprolite material confirmed these results. The C. spiculigerum sequence represented a phylogenetic anomaly and subsequent analysis determined the sequence was an error in the BLAST database, likely attributable to misidentification of juvenile specimens prior to sequencing and submission. Physaloptera are a difficult genus to identify morphologically and can carry major health burdens. They may be underreported in humans, in part, because of morphological similarities to the more common human parasites belonging to ascarids. We conclude that integrating traditional morphological methods with molecular methods can help resolve this issue, in both contemporary and prehistoric populations.

Keywords: Ascaris; Contracaecum spiculigerum; Physaloptera; ancient DNA; archaeoparasitology; coprolites.