What shipwreck insects reveal about life at sea in the 17th century

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A big Romance links these days to the “Age of Sail”, the period between the 15th and 19th centuries when wooden sailing ships reached their technological apogee. However, historians have a less strong view. The diaries and logs that have survived from that time do not paint a very pretty picture of the conditions on board.

A new paper provides insight from an unexpected source. Written by Eva Panagiotakopulu, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, and Ana Catarina Garcia, an archaeologist at Nova University in Lisbon, and published in Biological Attacks, the paper examines two shipwrecks off the Azores, both dating to around 1650. The first is believed to be a Dutch ship, called Angra C; the second, Angra D, was Spanish.

Visits to the two wrecks have recovered everything from ropes, tools and buckets to grains of wheat and deck planks – as well as the remains of various species of insects. The researchers were interested in how sailboats ferry invasive species from one continent to another. But their findings also shed light on the unpleasant realities of life at sea in the 17th century.

Among the preserved insect parts were wings from the American cock, America gone. (Despite its name, it is not native to America.) In addition to its distinct lack of charisma, this species lives off garbage and spreads serious diseases including salmonella . More than 30 individual flies from a so-called species Dohrniphora cornuta are also identified. It is often found alive in rotten food, and is also fond of sewage.

Piophila casei is another fly known as the “cheese skipper”. It lays eggs on cheeses, dried meats and smoked fish. It also has a desire to rot human flesh, and gets its name because its larvae easily “jump” from body to food. The researchers excavated the remains of Teichomyza fusca, It is widely known as the “turine fly” because its larvae thrive in wood full of urine.

The diary of an ocean visitor from the 1600’s says “Most people did not take the trouble to go above to relieve themselves. ” Whether this was a common practice has been debated. Drs Garcia and Panagiotakopulu’s gastric bypass findings indicate that it was. But that’s a detail that might be left out of the next “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.

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