Ancient Residents of Jerusalem Carried a Nasty Bug

Researchers analyze poop from 2.5K-year-old toilets and find evidence of dysentery
By Steve Huff,  Newser Staff
Posted May 26, 2023 11:47 AM CDT
Toilets in Ancient Jerusalem Reveal Nasty Parasites
This photo provided by the Israel Antiquities Authority shows a rare ancient toilet in Jerusalem dating back more than 2,700 years.   (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority via AP)

Today in fascinating poop news: Even wealthy Iron Age residents of Jerusalem—then a booming city in the Assyrian empire—couldn't escape the distressing grip of intestinal parasites. CNN reports that researchers have unearthed 2,500-year-old latrines that once belonged to the elite, and they've found traces of dysentery-causing parasites, including the earliest known evidence of Giardia duodenalis, an unwelcome intestinal guest that causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and weight loss. The parasite party didn't stop at Giardia. Researchers found four types of parasitic worm eggs, including roundworm, whipworm, beef and pork tapeworm, and pinworm. Each has different ways to cause discomfort, from cramps and vomiting to painful bowel movements and anal itching.

These parasites weren't just passing visitors, either; they thrived and procreated in the intestines of their hosts. “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 over-crowding, heat and flies, and limited water available in the summer,” says Cambridge's Dr. Piers Mitchell, lead author of the study in Parasitology, per a news release. Turns out, as Science News notes, ancient feces is a gold mine of information for scientists. Just as today's garbage bags can tell the story of the week's meals or what kind of medication you take, digging into ancient toilets provides a considerable amount of information about health and diet.

Scientists have made numerous intriguing discoveries by analyzing human feces, or coprolites, providing insights into the lifestyles of ancient societies. For example, Newsweek reported in 2018 that an analysis of fecal matter from Viking-age latrines in Denmark revealed a diet rich in sea-based food sources. Additionally, a Journal of Archaeological Science study in 2020 discovered the first-ever instances of cucumber and rhubarb in Danish coprolites dating back 900 years. (More discoveries stories.)

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