Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version

August 2007


Published in Quaternary International 180:1 (March 2008; Neotropical Zooarchaeology and Taphonomy), pp. 17–21; doi 10.1016/j.quaint.2007.08.007 Copyright © 2007 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA. Used by permission.


Paleoparasitology has contributed to resolving the debate about the peopling of the Americas and determining the antiquity of human parasite infection. Hookworm (Ancylostomidae) and whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) and other exclusive human intestinal parasites have been recorded in pre-Columbian America. These parasite species originated in pre-hominids and have accompanied humans across continents when people went out of Africa. However, for those human populations that crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia to Alaska, cold climate conditions hampered parasite transmission. Alternative migration routes have been proposed to explain the presence of these parasites in pre-Columbian populations in the Americas. Other parasites were established in the New World long before humans entered the American continents.

One such malady is Chagas disease. Chagas disease, caused by Trypanosoma cruzi, offers an example of how animals and humans have interacted in the past. Classical theory points to the origin and dispersion of human T. cruzi infection among Andean populations, starting with sedentary habits and animal domestication 6000 years ago. However, recent PCR results in mummified bodies outside the Andean region have challenged this theory. Pre-Columbian Brazilian mummies were found positive for T. cruzi infection, raising an alternative hypothesis on the antiquity of Chagas disease in the Americas. Paleoparasitology is a new tool to study past events, shedding light on human and other animal behavior, migration routes, diet, and other aspects of host–parasite environment evolution.