Lice, crabs, and humans: a tale as old as time… or at least mummies.

By Seriously Science | July 10, 2017 6:00 am
Image: Flickr/Gilles San Martin

Image: Flickr/Gilles San Martin

Edit: the original post included a photo that was not of head lice. This has been corrected. Thank you!

Although the best-known mummies are the cloth-wrapped Egyptian variety so often seen in horror movies, many kinds of mummies have been found all over the world. And it’s not only the human bodies that have been preserved during the process of mummification–often human parasites are, too! Scientists can use the presence of parasites on and in mummies to track the history of their association. Here, scientists report finding head and pubic lice on mummies from Chile; they think that humans brought the parasites with them when they migrated across the Bering Strait thousands of years ago.

Crab louse infestation in pre-Columbian America.

“Until now, Pthirus pubis infestation in ancient human populations had only been recorded in the Old World. We found crab lice on South American mummified bodies from the Atacama Desert region. Crab louse eggs were found attached to the pubic hairs of a 2,000-yr-old Chilean mummy. Well-preserved adults were found in sediment and clothing from a Peruvian mummy dated 1,000 yr ago. Paleoparasitological evidence expands the knowledge of the distribution of this ectoparasite in ancient populations. As with many other parasites, pubic lice recorded in Andean populations show the antiquity of this parasite in the New World. It is likely that P. pubis entered the continent with early human migration to the New World.”

Severe head lice infestation in an Andean mummy of Arica, Chile.

“Pediculus humanus capitis is an ancient human parasite, probably inherited from pre-hominid times. Infestation appears as a recurrent health problem throughout history, including in pre-Columbian populations. Here, we describe and discuss the occurrence of pre-Columbian pediculosis in the Andean region of the Atacama Desert. Using a light microscope and scanning electron microscopy, we studied a highly infested Maitas Chiribaya mummy from Arica in northern Chile dating to 670-990 calibrated years A.D. The scalp and hair of the mummy were almost completely covered by nits and adult head lice. Low- and high-vacuum scanning electron microscopy revealed a well-preserved morphology of the eggs. In addition, the excellent preservation of the nearly 1,000-yr-old adult head lice allowed us to observe and characterize the head, antennae, thorax, abdomen, and legs. Leg segmentation, abdominal spiracles, and sexual dimorphism also were clearly observed. The preservation of the ectoparasites allowed us to examine the micromorphology using scanning electron microscopy; the opercula, aeropyles, and spiracles were clearly visible. This case study provides strong evidence that head lice were a common nuisance for Andean farmers and herders. Head lice are transmitted by direct head-to-head contact; thus, this ancient farmer and herder was potentially infesting other people. The present study contributes to the body of research focusing on lice in ancient populations.”

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  • Uncle Al

    The scalp and hair of the mummy were almost completely covered by nits and adult head lice.” Perhaps it was fashionable.

    a common nuisance” “Nuisance?” I’d begin with “misery.” One cannot imagine there not being a Louse God with its predator priesthood hunting old women whose knowledge of indigenous saponin-rich plants (e.g., yucca) provided a relief shampoo. US Pat. 6485734


    • Kamran Rowshandel

      I’m going to make you shut up old man Mark my word

      • Uncle Al

        Science is a living entity, not a moldy old steamer trunk.
        When Progressives are not bitter, angry and mean they are petty, small, and puerile – a confluence of overwhelming ignorance with overweening arrogance.

        Discus, Kamran Rowshandel, 10 July 2017, total 13 comments.

      • OWilson

        Thank god there are no neighborhood stores to loot, cop cars to burn, government buildings to vandalize around these parts! :)

        Why does a little common sense free speech applied with amusing satire unhinge these Swamp Dwellers so?

        • Uncle Al

          The Deep State is a Pediculus humanus capitis infestation: nit-wits.

          “vigorous politicization of speech and thought”
          “intellectual martial law”
          “dangerously insecure and perversely need[y]”
          “breakdown of legitimacy”
          …kunstler(dot)com/ July 10, 2017 9:00 am

          • OWilson

            As a conservative it is fun to finally be a “subversive” in a society which is so ready to bow to Big Government!

            “The Man” used to be their enemy.

            I think I’ll grow a Trotsky goatee, pull out a black beret and shades and see if I can find a basement coffee shop, where my kind are not persecuted by the bourgoise!

        • Kamran Rowshandel

          So you think it’s appropriate to have this man ramble on every slightly interesting Discover article and scare away people with intelligible things to share with other scientifically inclined readers?

          I think uncle al is extremely inappropriate and should be taken off the site but you make a good point that it’s surely a good release of energy for him.

          Not to imply that I have clashing views with him, he probably supports synthetic biology implementation and research.

  • Sean McCann

    Those are not lice in the image. Not even close.

    • Seriously Science

      The image has been replaced, and the correction noted in the post. Thank you!

  • J Smith

    Lice have been on primates for at least 25 million years, ie definitely as far back as when great apes and old world monkeys diverged.
    In fact the DNA divergence of human head (aka common lice) and pubic (aka crabs) gives us hints as to when hominids lost fur and contagious body hair.


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