2500-year-old toilets reveal prevalence of dysentery & diarrhoea in ancient Jerusalem

Scientists have studied faeces from two 2,500-year-old latrines in Jerusalem to find that it contained traces of Giardia duodenalis—a single celled organism that is known to cause dysentery.

Dysentery is a gastrointestinal disease that can cause symptoms like diarrhoea, fever, nausea, vomiting, weight loss and stomach cramps. The study of the latrines which dates back to the biblical kingdom of Judah, was pF8D264616547EA4EBED69E4" rel="nofollow">ublished in the journal Parasitology and provided the oldest known evidence of this parasite infecting humans anywhere on the planet, according to the University of Cambridge.

“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. Dysentery is spread by faeces 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” said study lead author Piers Mitchell in a press statement.

Studying millennia-old poop

Toilets were found in two building complexes that were excavated to the south of the Old City—the faecal samples came from the sediment under these toilets. The toilets date back to the 7th century BC, when Jerusalem was the capital of the kingdom of Judah.

The faecal samples came from the sediment underneath toilets found in two building complexes excavated to the south of the Old City, which date back to the 7th century BCE when Jerusalem was the capital of Judah.

Both the unearthed toilets had identical designs—a shallow curved surface for sitting with a large central hole to conduct business for everyone. Next to this hole at the front was another hole for males to urinate. Toilets from this era are quite rare since they were only made for the elite, according to Mitchell.

Old-age diarrhoea

The ancient populations of what is now the near and Middle East being affected by diarrhoea have been documented in medical texts from Mesopotamia during the first and second millennium BC. ““If a person eats bread and drinks beer and subsequently his stomach is colicky, he has cramps and has a flowing of the bowels,” an example describes diarrhoea.

“These early written sources do not provide causes of diarrhoea, but they encourage us to apply modern techniques to investigate which pathogens might have been involved. We know for sure that Giardia was one of those infections responsible,” added Mitchell.

But this is not the earliest evidence of a parasite causing dysentery anywhere else in the world. Previous research has revealed traces of the Entamoeba parasite in Neolothic Greece, as far back as 4,000 years ago.

Previous research has dated traces of the Entamoeba parasite, which also causes dysentery, as far back as Neolithic Greece over 4,000 years ago. Previous work has also shown that users of ancient Judean toilets were infected by other intestinal parasites including whipworm, tapeworm and pinworm.