(News) — In the Iron Age, the users of two ancient Jerusalem toilets were not a healthy bunch, according to an analysis of fecal matter samples from the 2,500-year-old latrines.
The researchers found traces of dysentery-causing parasites in material excavated from the cesspools located under the two stone toilets that would have belonged to the homes of the city’s elite. Back then, Jerusalem was a vibrant political and religious center of the Assyrian empire, with between 8,000 and 25,000 people living there.
This is the first known evidence of a disease called Giardia duodenalis, although the infection, which causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and weight loss, had already been identified in Roman-era Turkey and medieval Israel.
“Dysentery is spread by feces contaminating drinking water or food, and we suspected it might have been a big problem in early cities in the ancient Middle East due to overcrowding, heat and flies, and the scarcity of available water. in summer,” said Dr. Piers Mitchell, lead author of the study published Thursday in the scientific journal Parasitology and an honorary member of the Department of Archeology at the University of Cambridge, in a statement.
Most of the people dying today from dysentery caused by Giardia are children, and chronic infection in children can cause growth retardation, impaired cognitive function, and delayed development.
The poop of ancient settlers is a rich source of information for archaeologists and has revealed the Iron Age appetite for blue cheese, a mysterious population in the Faroe Islands, and the discovery that the builders of Stonehenge took a feast on the internal organs of cattle.
The archaeologists who excavated the latrines took sediment samples from the cesspool located under each seat.
They found a seat south of Jerusalem, in the Armon ha-Natziv neighborhood, in a mansion excavated in 2019. It likely dates to the time of King Manasseh, who ruled for 50 years in the mid-seventh century BC Made of limestone, the toilet has a large central hole for defecation and an adjacent hole probably for male urination.
The other studied toilet, of a similar design, was excavated in the Old City of Jerusalem, in a seven-room building known as the House of Ahiel, which would have been the home of an upper-class family at the time.
The eggs of four types of intestinal parasites (tapeworm, tapeworm, roundworm, and whipworm) had already been identified in the cesspool sediment. But the microorganisms that cause dysentery are fragile and very difficult to detect, according to the new study.
To overcome this problem, the team used a biomolecular technique called ELISA, in which antibodies bind to proteins produced exclusively by specific species of single-celled organisms.
The researchers tested for the presence of Entamoeba, Giardia and Cryptosporidium, three parasitic microorganisms that are among the most common causes of diarrhea in humans and are behind outbreaks of dysentery. Tests for Entamoeba and Cryptosporidium were negative, but those for Giardia were repeatedly positive.
Jerusalem, a probable source of diseases
The Middle East was the region of the world where humans created their first settlements, learned to farm and domesticate animals, and where the first great towns and cities arose. According to the study, cities like Jerusalem would likely have been hotspots for disease outbreaks, easily spread by traders and during military expeditions.
“Although cesspit toilets existed throughout the region in the Iron Age, they were relatively rare and often only for the elite,” the study notes.
“Cities were not planned or built with a sewage network, flush toilets had not yet been invented, and the population was unaware of the existence of microorganisms and how they can spread.”
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