King Richard Roundworm Infection: Soil Analysis Shows Medieval Monarch Had Intestinal Parasites When He Died
It was an axe to the head that felled King Richard III, who ruled England from 1483 to 1485, during the Battle of Bosworth Field. But another incursion was already, and quite literally, eating away at poor Richard. New research of King Richard III's bones, discovered last year underneath a parking lot in England, shows that his highness' royal bowels were infested with roundworm.
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Scientists studying the skeleton of Richard III found evidence that the king had a serious intestinal parasite problem. Using a powerful microscope, researchers from Cambridge University studied soil samples taken from the skeleton's pelvis and skull, as well as soil samples from around the grave. The Guardian reports that the scientists discovered multiple roundworm eggs around King Richard III's pelvis -- where his intestines would have been -- but none or very few in the soil near his head and around the grave.
The concentration of the eggs around his pelvis indicates that the roundworm lived inside King Richard's bowels while he was still alive.
"This is the first time anyone has studied a king [or] noble in Britain to look for ancient intestinal parasites," Piers Mitchell, a paleoparasitologist and orthopedic surgeon at the University of Cambridge, told NBC News in an email.
The type of roundworm found inside King Richard III was Ascaris lumbricoides, the largest and most common parasitic worm in humans. Every animal has its own kind of roundworm, which can also infect humans through contact with or ingesting larvae or eggs.
According to NBC News, researchers didn't find any other type of intestinal parasite inside King Richard, even though the king regularly ate meats like beef, pork and fish.
"Despite Richard's noble background, it appears that his lifestyle did not completely protect him from intestinal parasite infection, which would have been very common at the time," Dr. Jo Appleby, who teaches human bioarchaeology at the University of Leicester, said in a press release.
Where do researchers believe King Richard III's roundworm came from? The king probably became infected after eating food cooked with unwashed hands. Soiled hands can spread human feces to food like vegetables, which are often eaten raw. Dr. Piers Mitchell, who worked on the project, explains:
Our results show that Richard was infected with roundworms in his intestines, although no other species of intestinal parasite were present in the samples we studied. We would expect nobles of this period to have eaten meats such as beef, pork and fish regularly, but there was no evidence for the eggs of the beef, pork or fish tapeworm. This may suggest that his food was cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of these parasites.
Roundworm is an intestinal parasite that enters the body when a person swallows eggs. While it's uncommon in the U.S. today, some 1.2 billion people worldwide are infected with the intestinal bug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In adults, symptoms of roundworm infection can be mild to non-existent, meaning King Richard III probably didn't know he had them. In kids, however, roundworm infection can cause fever, nausea, vomiting and sore muscles. Estimates put the death toll from roundworm today at about 60,000 a year.
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