Evidence of the water-borne parasite in mummies from Nubia, a former kingdom that was located along the Nile River in present-day Sudan, suggests age-old irrigation techniques may have increased the incidence of the disease, scientists at Emory University said. The finding is seen as evidence of how human alteration of the environment during that era may have contributed to its spread, an Emory release said Monday.
About a quarter of the mummies in the study dated to about 1,500 years ago were found to have Schistosoma mansoni, a species of the parasite associated with more modern-day irrigation techniques, researchers said.
"Often in the case of prehistoric populations, we tend to assume that they were at the mercy of the environment, and that their circumstances were a given," says researcher Amber Campbell Hibbs. "Our study suggests that, just like people today, these ancient individuals were capable of altering the environment in ways that impacted their health."
Schistosomiasis can cause anemia and chronic illness that impairs growth and cognitive development and damages organs.
Along with malaria, schistosomiasis ranks among the most socio-economically damaging parasitic diseases in the world, Emory researchers said.