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Anthropology Alumna Yeh Hui-Yuan and Supervisor Piers Mitchell Publish Joint Paper on Paleo-parasites in The Lancet

Anthropology alumna Yeh Hui-Yuan (doctoral candidate in biological anthropology, University of Cambridge) has become one of the very few Taiwanese authors to have published in the world’s longest-standing and most professionally trusted peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet. In collaboration with her UK supervisor, Dr. Piers Mitchell, Yeh is the second author of “The intestinal parasites of King Richard III,” a research paper on paleo-parasites that was published in September 2013.In addition to its prestige, The Lancet has the highest impact factor of any journal in the world (39.060).

In their collaboration with an archaeologist, the authors discovered roundworm eggs in soil samples taken from around the abdominal area of the remains of King Richard III of England (1452–1485). By comparing the soil with control samples taken from soil near the king’s head and the area surrounding the grave, they confirmed that Richard had been infected with the parasite.

The research also sheds light on King Richard’s diet, as research into parasitic infections in England in the Middle Ages has shown that parasites such as tapeworms from fish, pigs and cattle are commonly found in human remains, which suggests that the people of that period regularly consumed certain species of meats and fish (e.g. salmon) that are often host to tapeworms. Eating improperly cooked meat can lead to parasitic infection, but since no traces of tapeworm were found in Richard’s body, it is deduced that he had most likely only eaten well-cooked meat.

As a result, the roundworm infection found around the king’s abdominal area could have been caused by poor sanitation. Unlike the tapeworm, the roundworm does not require an intermediate host (i.e. fish and meat), as its main path of transmission is fecal to oral (i.e. from food or water that has been contaminated with faeces). Therefore, faecal parasites which are transmitted via an oral route, such as the whipworm, are regarded as important indicators into the probing of historical sanitation practices. The analysis of King Richard’s intestinal parasites make him England’s first monarch to be proven to have suffered from parasitic infection.

Richard III, the last Plantagenet monarch, has been a source of controversy in English history. After he was killed on the battlefield, the whereabouts of his remains were unknown. The rediscovery of his remains in a Leicester car park caused a national stir and was heralded as the archaeological find of the century. Step by step the picture was filled in by subsequent research, such as 3D facial reconstruction and comparative DNA identification.

Yeh’s supervisor, Dr. Piers Mitchell, joined forces with Dr. Jo Appleby, a lecturer in human bioarchaeology at the University of Leicester, to carry out pathological and forensic anthropological research into the state of King Richard’s health. Major UK television stations, including BBC and Channel 4, have broadcast a slew of programmes relating to research into Richard III, and NTU alumna Yeh Hui-Yuan appears on television with her supervisor to explain the palaeo-parasite analysis to the British public.

Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Appleby have also appeared on television to explain the wounds on Richard’s body and other findings from forensic anthropology, such as the feminine litheness of Richard’s body, his severely deformed backbone, and the signs of hacking wounds from battle. The serious wounds were mostly suffered by the skull, in particular the rear of the skull, which was practically cut in two by what was probably the mortal wound and which also caused injuries to the face. In addition, the skeleton has wounds to two main areas, one of which is a right rib, which may have been cut when a piece of armour dropped off or may have been inflicted post mortem when Richard’s corpse was stripped of its clothes and dragged through the streets. The other major hacking wound was to the right hip, which analysis has shown was inflicted from behind. These forensic anthropological findings show how Richard met with a cruel and bloody end.

Yeh studied for a Master’s degree in anthropology at NTU in 2007. During this time, she attended classes and did practical work in the Graduate Institutes of Forensic Medicine and Anatomy in the Faculty of Medicine, where she carried out identification of human remains and DNA family relationship analysis. To date she has analysed more than three thousand dead bodies. After graduation, Yeh worked at Academia Sinica and then moved on to the University of Cambridge to pursue her studies, specializing in bioanthropology with a focus on palaeo-parasites and forensic anthropology and other research into human osteopathology. In her research into human remains, she also uses isotope analysis techniques which are widely used in geology and archaeology.

In 2013, Yeh came second in the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) Student Prize for her work on palaeo-parasites in Northern Europe. Yeh noted that her work was particularly indebted to the teaching faculty of the Department of Anthropology and the Graduate Institutes of Forensic Medicine and Anatomy at NTU. She wishes to thank all those who taught and guided her.

For more information of Yeh’s article, please click HERE.

Chinese version