Dysentery parasite found in 2,500-year-old Jerusalem toilets

An analysis of ancient feces from two Jerusalem latrines dating back to the biblical Kingdom of Judah has revealed the presence of Giardia duodenalis, a single-celled microorganism known to cause severe diarrhea in humans. The University of Cambridge led the research, and their findings, published in the journal Parasitology, indicate that this is the earliest known evidence of the diarrhea-causing parasite infecting humans anywhere in the world.

Dr. Piers Mitchell, the lead author of the study from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, stated that the discovery of these parasites in sediment from the Iron Age cesspits suggests that dysentery was widespread in the Kingdom of Judah. Dysentery refers to intestinal infectious diseases caused by parasites and bacteria, resulting in symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and dehydration. It can be particularly fatal for young children.

Mitchell explained that dysentery is typically transmitted through fecal contamination of drinking water or food. Given the conditions of overcrowding, heat, flies, and limited water availability in the ancient Near East cities, especially during the summer, the researchers suspected that dysentery could have been a significant issue during that time.

The fecal samples were obtained from the sediment beneath toilets discovered in two building complexes south of the Old City of Jerusalem. These structures date back to the 7th century BCE when Jerusalem served as the capital of Judah. During this period, Judah was under the control of the Assyrian Empire, which encompassed vast territories from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, including parts of modern-day Iran and Iraq. Jerusalem was a thriving political and religious center with an estimated population of 8,000 to 25,000 residents.

Both latrines featured carved stone seats with similar designs—a shallow curved surface for sitting, a large central hole for defecation, and an adjacent hole at the front for male urination. Mitchell noted that toilets with cesspits from this era were relatively rare and primarily reserved for the elite. One of the latrines was found in a lavishly decorated estate at Armon ha-Natziv, believed to date back to the reign of King Manasseh, an Assyrian client king who ruled for fifty years during the mid-7th century BCE.

The toilet seat from the estate at Armon ha-Natziv. The site, excavated in 2019, probably dates from the days of King Manasseh, a client king for the Assyrians who ruled for fifty years in the mid-7th century. Credit: Ya’akov Billig

The second latrine, known as the House of Ahiel, was part of a domestic building consisting of seven rooms and belonged to an upper-class family. Its construction is difficult to precisely date, but some estimates place it around the 8th century BCE. However, it was destroyed in 586 BCE when the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II sacked Jerusalem for the second time after its citizens refused to pay the agreed tribute, leading to the downfall of the Kingdom of Judah.

Ancient medical texts from Mesopotamia, dating back to the first and second millennium BCE, mention cases of diarrhea among the populations of the Near and Middle East. For instance, one text states: “If a person eats bread and drinks beer and subsequently his stomach is colicky, he has cramps and has a flowing of the bowels, setu has gotten him.” The cuneiform term frequently used in these texts to describe diarrhea was “sà si-sá.” Some texts also included incantations believed to improve the chances of recovery.

While these early written sources do not provide specific causes of diarrhea, they inspire modern researchers to apply advanced techniques to investigate the potential pathogens involved. Dr. Mitchell explained, “We know for sure that Giardia was one of those infections responsible.”

The research team employed a bio-molecular technique called “ELISA” to examine the decomposed feces from the biblical period, which were over two and a half thousand years old. ELISA involves using antibodies to identify proteins produced uniquely by specific species of single-celled organisms. Co-author Tianyi Wang, a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge, stated that the fragile nature of the protozoa causing dysentery makes their detection challenging under microscopes without the use of antibodies.

The researchers conducted tests for three parasitic microorganisms—Entamoeba, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium—which are among the most common causes of diarrhea in humans and can lead to dysentery outbreaks. While the tests for Entamoeba and Cryptosporidium yielded negative results, those for Giardia consistently came back positive.

Previous studies have detected traces of the Entamoeba parasite, also responsible for dysentery, dating back over 4,000 years to Neolithic Greece. Earlier research has also shown that users of ancient Judean toilets were infected with other intestinal parasites such as whipworm, tapeworm, and pinworm.

This research was a collaboration between the University of Cambridge, Tel Aviv University, and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Source: University of Cambridge

Leave a Comment