Ancient parasite found in Jerusalem toilets
It is not shocking to learn that ancient hygiene did not live up to modern standards. But new archaeological evidence from Jerusalem suggests that personal and communal hygiene may have been much worse than previously suspected. Examining the remains of toilets from Iron Age II Jerusalem (c. 1000–586 BCE), a group of scientists and archaeologists discovered the oldest known sample of Giardia Duodenalis, a parasite that causes dysentery and other illnesses. Publishing their findings in the journal Parasitology, the team suggests the parasite and its associated ailments may have been endemic in biblical Jerusalem and widespread throughout the ancient Near East.
Following the excavation of a seventh-sixth century BCE toilet in the Armon HaNatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem, researchers were presented with the unusual opportunity to examine the remains of ancient Judean poop. It may sound unseemly, but examining feces can provide scientists with considerable information about ancient health and dietary practices.
After uncovering a toilet within a palatial building overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, an international team set about gaining as much information as possible. Early analysis revealed the presence of various parasites, including whipworm, roundworm, tapeworm, and pinworm. However, more thorough laboratory analysis provided the most fascinating discovery: the oldest-known example of Giardia Duodenalis.
The Giardia Duodenalis parasite is spread through water or food contaminated with the feces of infected people or animals and can often lead to diarrhea, cramps, and even death. Ancient cities like Jerusalem, which did not have sewage networks or adequate hygiene, were ideal places for such illness to spread. In addition to the Armon HaNatziv toilet, the team also a toilet discovered in the “House of Ahiel” in the City of David. Both toilets came from elite residences, which were often the only houses that had such amenities. Given that the parasite was found in both places, the team suggests it was likely endemic to Jerusalem and was even common among the city’s wealthiest, elite inhabitants.
Ancient medical texts from as early as the second millennium BCE mention diseases like diarrhea and other digestive ailments. However, it can be difficult for modern scientists to understand the causes of such infections, as many bacteria, parasites, and viruses break down long before they can be uncovered by archaeologists. Even those that do stick around are often undetectable without well-preserved samples from secure archaeological contexts. Fortunately, the Armon HaNatziv toilet was found in situ. Excavated in a private outhouse, the toilet was carved out of limestone and placed over a cesspit made in the bedrock. The undisturbed condition of the toilet and cesspit gave the excavators a rare look into the gut of ancient Judeans in a way not previously possible.
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