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Conversation: Insights from Insects Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008

Ancient bugs offer clues to the human past.

(Courtesy Paul Buckland)

Archaeoentomologist Paul Buckland studies the remains of insects, which provide a unique perspective on events from mass human migrations to the failure of Norse settlements in Greenland. He spoke with journalist Josie Glausiusz about Roman grain weevils, Egyptian bedbugs, and Arctic sheep ectoparasites.

What do insects tell us about a site that pottery or bones can't?
We can infer a range of diseases from insect remains. Both the human louse and human flea are common as fossils in archaeological deposits. Body lice are vectors in the spread of typhus, and fleas of plague. Also, there may be occasions when bone preservation is very poor but insect preservation is good. Sheep ectoparasites, for example, are extremely common at sites in Norse Greenland and Iceland.

How do sheep ectoparasites help us understand the human past?
They tend to indicate wool processing rather than the presence of live animals, since the parasites are very reluctant to leave their hosts and only occur away from the animal in large numbers on fleeces pulled from the animal during the spring molt. High concentrations almost certainly reflect cleaning of wool, which the Norse did by washing it in urine.

Why do insects sometimes preserve better than bones?
Their exoskeletons are pretty robust, and will survive in completely dry conditions, as well as in water-logged acidic conditions. On the whole, insects of one sort or another are the most common macrofossils in sediments of the last two million years. One cubic centimeter of lake sediment may contain several thousand chironomids, or non-biting midges.

What have you learned about ancient Egypt by studying insects?
There are extensive assemblages of species associated with stored grain, particularly Sitophilus granarius, the grain weevil, whose origins are probably in rodent caches of grass seeds up in the area of the Fertile Crescent. The weevil is certainly present at the Step Pyramid at Saqqara [ca. 2650 B.C.], and it's been taking its tithe on all cereal production from then on.

Do grain weevils reveal anything about human migration?
We have only two examples of the weevil in Northern Europe from the Early Neolithic, and then the next time they're present is in the Roman period, in almost every sample. So they are clearly moving in the baggage train of the Roman army, and this large-scale movement of grain provides them with an opportunity to move to places outside their natural climatic range. With the expansion of Rome, the grain weevil goes as far north as the Antonine Wall in Scotland, and as far south as Mons Claudianus, the site of Roman quarries in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

You and your collaborator Eva Panagiotakopulu discovered that bedbugs are first associated with humans in fourteenth-century B.C. Egypt. What else have you learned about this irritating insect?
Scottish evidence [from mid-eighteenth-century sites] indicates that people in peat-fired houses don't have bedbugs. But when you go over to coal fires, buildings are warmer and dryer and get infested with them. The natural environment of bedbugs has to be warmer and dryer, and the probability is that they originated in the Near East.

You examined insects from two Norse farms in western Greenland. What light did they shed on the failure of the Norse settlers in the fourteenth century?
One thing that was very evident was that there were no insect remains associated with waste fat. Things that would live on marrow and similar fatty materials from butchered animals--the piophilid flies, or cheese skippers, for example--were missing. This suggests that in order to consume enough fat to enable them to digest the proteins in lean meat, these farmers were having to process animals to recover every last bit of fat.

Were you especially attracted to insects as a child?
No. I think my mother would have been horrified.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America