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ASCARIDS, AMERICAN INDIANS, AND THE MODERN WORLD: PARASITES AND THE PREHISTORIC RECORD OF A PHARMACOLOGICAL TRADITION THOMASJ. RILEY* It has been many years ago now, but I still remember the shock I felt when my daughter, six at the time, came home from her first-grade class with a note from her principal declaring that her school had a pinworm problem. She had a set of directions for getting rid of pinworms clutched in her tiny little hand and in due course, after following all the directions, our family and the school were declared to be free of these little beasts. Good archaeologists discover the problems in which they are interested from a number of sources. One of those sources is the problems they face in their own lives. Using the grade school pinworm crisis as a base, a really good North American archaeologist would have started to think then and there about the endoparasites of prehistoric American Indians, but I must confess American Indian parasites never even crossed my mind at the time [I]. It was not until I was giving a public lecture about prehistoric eastern North American domesticates in 1991 that the problem of parasites came to my attention again, and I made the connection between American Indians and the worms to which, like the rest of us, they were hosts. By 3,800 years ago in eastern North America at least two, and perhaps as many as four, domesticated plants were in the Amerindian repertory. Squash, probably a tropical domesticate, had been in use for at least four thousand years [2]. Iva annua, an eastern weed, appears to have been in the process of domestication, and various Chenopodium varieties —commonly called goosefoot or lamb's-quarters—have been found in archaeological sites in eastern and western North America. One of the varieties of goosefoot found in eastern North American archaeologi- *Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 109 Davenport Hall, 607 South Mathews Avenue, Urbana, Illinois 61801.© 1993 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/93/3603-0832$01 .00 Perspectives in Biology andMedicine, 36, 3 ¦ Spring 1993 | 369 cal sites, C. berlandieri, is virtually identical to a domesticated variety known from historic times in Mexico [3, 4]. Nowadays midwestern farmers see Chenopodium as an adventive weed, and a number of chemical companies have seen their stock grow in value by trying to wipe it out. Archeologists think that in archaic times the plant was an important food supplement. After my lecture a local veterinarian came to me and asked whether I was sure that goosefoot had been used for food. He pointed out to me that oil of chenopodium was an effective vermifuge or anthelmintic, and that some vets still used it to rid pigs and cattle of roundworms. "Is there any evidence that prehistoric Indians used Chenopodium in the same way?" he asked. I had to confess that I did not know whether the plant had been used as a prehistoric vermifuge, but I was intrigued by the problem. A furious onslaught on the university library and various databases ensued. I found myself reading various materia medica of the United States, agricultural journals, ethnobotanical and parasitological texts, as well as searching for archaeological site reports and articles that might give clues to the kinds of worms that prehistoric North American peoples may have suffered. American Indians did suffer from worms, but it has only been in the last thirty years that hard evidence for parasites in prehistoric Indian populations has been systematically amassed. The famous Dr. Benjamin Barton, a physician in eighteenth century Philadelphia, noted the presence of worms in historic eastern North American Indian villages, and recorded the various types of plants used to treat worm infestations. He noted that one of the concoctions that southeastern American Indians used for treating worms was to soak maize in a "strong lixivium, or lye, of the ashes of beanstalks or other vegetables." This is what we now call hominy, and I do not honestly know whether it has any effect on worms [5]. Among the other portions that Barton notes is oil of chenopodium, made by steaming the leaves...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 369-375
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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