A flea can jump 160 times its own body length–the equivalent of a 6 foot tall human jumping the length of over 3 football fields. Most of the known 2500 species of fleas are ectoparasites that use this phenomenal jumping ability to leap from the ground to an host or from one host to another. Scientists believe the human flea was originally a parasite of wild cavies, species of rodents native to South America. 9,000 years ago, South American Indians began domesticating a species of cavy, either Cavia tschudii or C. aperea, resulting in the well known household pet, the guinea pig ( C. porcellus ). The domestication process may have been instigated by the cavies rather than humans. Cavies likely were attracted to the shelter of human dwellings where they fed on vegetal kitchen scraps.
The human flea expanded to many times its size. Their toes serve as a lever that helps them jump many times their body length.
The guinea pig is thought to be the original host of the human flea. Fur traders spread the flea from South America to North America and across the Bering Strait to Asia.
By 7,000 years ago, guinea pigs were commonly raised in many South American Indian households. Maintaining a population of 20 individuals yielded about 12 pounds of meat per month, so they served as a valuable source of food, lessening the need to hunt wild animals. Fleas from guinea pigs made the leap to man and from there they conquered 5 continents. According to the lead author of the below referenced study, they advanced through a “step by step gift exchange of furs from South to North America and over the Bering Strait.” Fur traders slept on their skins and left flea larva living in the detritus of flea feces, dried blood, and human skin flakes that accumulated on their unwashed beds. After mature fleas feed on blood, they lay their eggs in this detritus. Human fleas were carried along Asian trade routes and they conquered Egypt by 6000 BP. The Roman armies carried fleas from Egypt to southern Europe, and the Vikings may have carried fleas from North America to northern Europe.
Roman legions and Vikings carried fleas with them to Europe. Bubonic plague carried by fleas from rats to humans and back depopulated Europe. Fleas were responsible for far more deaths than Romans and Vikings.
Human fleas made a colossal impact on human history. Fleas jumping back and forth between rats and humans spread bubonic plague, a disease that killed an estimated 30%-60% of the European population during the years 1347-1350. Much of Europe reverted back to wilderness following this depopulation. The Romans and the Vikings thought they had conquered the world, but they are long gone. Human fleas are still here and can be found in just about every hotel, even in the finest, most expensive chains.
Panagiotakopulo, Eva; and Paul Buckland
“A Thousand Bites–Insect Introductions and Late Holocene Environments”
Quaternary Science Reviews November 2016