Royal flushes shed light on parasites behind ancient tummy troubles

In one of the more stomach-churning studies, a team led by the University of Cambridge has probed poo from two ancient toilets in Jerusalem and discovered traces of a microorganism called Giardia duodenalis, which causes diarrhea in humans.

Latrines are a surprisingly valuable resource for archaeologists for reasons that are obvious after an unpleasant moment of reflection. If you drop a jewel or a large gold coin in a stream or a gutter, your first impulse is likely to reach down and pick it up. However, if you drop even a costly item into a pit full of human excrement, odds are you’re likely to not want to retrieve it.

Such collections of ordure are also useful because they are a window, albeit a disgusting one, into the health of ancient people by preserving traces of parasites, pathogens, and microorganisms, as well as clues regarding diet, pollution, and other factors.

Unfortunately, excavating such latrines is so appalling a job that it sits in the danger money territory. Carefully digging an old poo pit with a trowel and the proper attentiveness while attempting to cultivate a professional air of detachment isn’t enough to push away the stark awareness of what it is you’re scraping at, the distinct smell that lingers even after centuries, and the knowledge of what those layers in the section are and why they are the shape they are. Calling it “sediment” doesn’t help either.

The research conducted in collaboration with Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority looked at some fairly regal night soil from cesspits under two toilets found in 2019 in the south of the Old City in Jerusalem dating back to the 7th century BCE when Jerusalem was a capital of Judah, which was then a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire.

The toilet seat from the estate at Armon ha-Natziv
The toilet seat from the estate at Armon ha-Natziv

Ya’akov Billig

The toilets were nearly identical, with a shallow carved seat, a hole in the center for doing number twos, and a small hole in the front for number ones. These sort of posh latrines were used by the elite of the time and are fairly rare. The dates of the two seats are well established because the 8th century BCE date of the construction of their building complexes is well known, as is the sacking of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE.

Ancient medical texts described something like diarrhea at that time, but such texts are often unreliable, talking about diseases with no modern counterpart and whole plagues that are a mystery to this day. For this reason, looking for direct evidence of ancient pathogens is very important. For the new study, the team used a technique called enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) that binds antibodies onto proteins that are unique to specific single-cell organisms.

This is important because, unlike parasite eggs, such organisms break down and cannot be seen directly. What the researchers found was that the tests when set for Entamoeba and Cryptosporidium were negative, but those for Giardia repeatedly came up positive, which now joins whipworms, tapeworms, and pinworm on the list of intestinal fauna that ancient Judeans had to put up with, even in the royal palaces.

Since we’re talking about diarrhea, it also provides us with a picture of what the non-flushing conveniences of the time must have been like – one we’d rather forget.

“The fact that these parasites were present in sediment from two Iron Age Jerusalem cesspits suggests that dysentery was endemic in the Kingdom of Judah,” said study lead author Dr. Piers Mitchell from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology. “Dysentery is a term that describes intestinal infectious diseases caused by parasites and bacteria that trigger diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and dehydration. It can be fatal, particularly for young children.

“Dysentery is spread by feces contaminating drinking water or food, and we suspected it could have been a big problem in early cities of the ancient Near East due to overcrowding, heat and flies, and limited water available in the summer.”

The study is published in the journal Parasitology.

Source: University of Cambridge

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