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Study: Iron Age Jerusalem toilets contain dysentery-causing parasites

The research affords “fascinating insight into health and disease of the early populations of biblical period Jerusalem and indeed the entire ancient Near East,” the authors claim.

Archeologist Yaakov Billig of the Israel Antiquities Authority next to the ancient toilet in Jerusalem. Photo by Yoli Schwartz/IAA
Archeologist Yaakov Billig of the Israel Antiquities Authority next to the ancient toilet in Jerusalem. Photo by Yoli Schwartz/IAA

When nature called some 2,500 years ago in Jerusalem, it was dysenteric.

That’s according to new research, which Israeli, British and American scholars published on May 26 in the journal Parasitology.

Prior studies had found evidence of whipworms, roundworms, tapeworms and pinworms at two ancient Jerusalem bathrooms, which dated to the 7th to early 6th century BCE, during the kingdom of Judah. But the parasites that cause dysentery “are fragile and do not survive well in ancient samples in a form recognizable using light microscopy,” the researchers wrote. 

They used something called an “enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay kit” to detect the giardia duodenalis, which causes dysentery. A gastrointestinal disease, dysentery has symptoms that include diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting, weight loss and stomach cramps, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

“This provides our first microbiological evidence for infective diarrhoeal illnesses that would have affected the populations of the ancient Near East,” the researchers wrote. 

When they combined their results with medical texts—which detail diarrhea in babies and adults, and describe incantations to aid in recovery—a few centuries later from Mesopotamia, “it seems likely that outbreaks of dysentery due to giardiasis may have caused ill health throughout early towns across the region,” per the study.

“As dysentery is more easily spread in environments with overcrowding, lack of organized sanitation and sewage systems, lack of understanding of how such diseases spread, and plenty of flies, we might expect the early cities of the Near East to have been well suited to disease outbreaks,” they added.

Hebrew literacy expanded and Jerusalem’s water supply improved in the centuries prior to the period of the study, which was likely during the reign of King Manasseh, the authors write. Between 8,000 and 25,000 people lived in Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE, they added.

The two toilets come from sites at the Ahiel House and Armon Hanatziv which the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated. At both, the researchers found evidence of dysentery-causing parasites. They note that no test is completely accurate, but although the tools they used can miss true infections, positive results are “highly likely” to be accurate.

The researchers figure that houseflies, as well as poor sewage and active trade routes, were to blame for the illness spreading widely.

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