The first toilets reveal that there was already dysentery in the Jerusalem of the Old Testament

A new analysis of ancient feces taken from two Jerusalem latrines dating to the Biblical Kingdom of Judah has uncovered traces of a single-celled microorganism. Giardia duodenalisa common cause of debilitating diarrhea in humans.

A research team led by the University of Cambridge says it’s the oldest example we have of this diarrhea-causing parasite infecting humans anywhere on the planet. The study is published in the journal ‘Parasitology’.

“The fact that these parasites were present in the sediments of two Iron Age Jerusalem cesspools suggests that dysentery was endemic in the Kingdom of Judah,” says lead study author Piers Mitchell of the Department of Archaeology. of Cambridge.

Dysentery is a term that describes intestinal infectious diseases caused by parasites and bacteria that cause diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, fever and dehydration. It can be fatal, particularly for young children,” he points out.

“Dysentery is transmitted by feces contaminating drinking water or food, and we suspect it might have been a big problem in early cities in the ancient Near East due to overcrowding, heat and flies, and the scarcity of available water. in the summer,” adds Mitchell.

The fecal samples came from sediment under toilet bowls found in two excavated building complexes south of the Old City, dating to the seventh century BC, when Jerusalem was the capital of Judah.

During this time, Judah was a vassal state under the control of the Assyrian Empire, which at its height stretched from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, incorporating much of present-day Iran and Iraq. Jerusalem would have been a flourishing political and religious center estimated to have had between 8,000 and 25,000 residents.

two holes

Both toilets had carved stone seats of almost identical design: a shallow curved surface to sit on, with a large central hole for defecation and an adjacent hole at the front for male urination. “cesspool toilets from this era are relatively rare and were generally only made for the elite,” says Mitchell.

One was from a lavishly decorated estate in Armon ha-Natziv, surrounded by an ornamental garden. The site, excavated in 2019, likely dates to the time of King Manasseh, a client king of the Assyrians who ruled for fifty years in the mid-7th century.

The site of the other bath, known as the House of Ahiel, was a domestic building made up of seven rooms, housing an upper-class family at the time. The date of construction is difficult to determine, and some place it around the 8th century BC. c.

However, its destruction is securely dated to 586 BC. C., when the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II brutally sacked Jerusalem for the second time after its citizens refused to pay their agreed tribute, ending the Kingdom of Judah.

bread and beer

Ancient medical texts from Mesopotamia during the first and second millennium BCE. C. describe the diarrhea that affected the populations of what is now the Near and Middle East. An example says: “If a person eats bread and drinks beer and later has stomach cramps, he has cramps and intestinal discharge, setu has got it.”

The cuneiform word often used in these texts to describe diarrhea was sà si-sá. Some texts also included recommended incantations to recite to increase the chances of recovery.

“These first written sources do not provide the causes of diarrhea, but they encourage us to apply modern techniques to investigate which pathogens might have been involved,” says the researcher. “We know for sure that Giardia it was one of those responsible infections.”

The toilet seat from the estate of Armon ha-Natziv

Ya’akov Billig

The team investigated decomposed feces from the 2,500-year-old Biblical period by applying a biomolecular technique called ‘ELISA’, in which antibodies bind to proteins produced only by particular species of single-celled organisms.

“Unlike the eggs of other intestinal parasites, the protozoa that cause dysentery are fragile and extremely difficult to detect in old samples through microscopes without using antibodies,” says co-author Tianyi Wang.

The researchers tested Entamoeba, Giardia y Cryptosporidium : three parasitic microorganisms that are among the most common causes of diarrhea in humans and behind outbreaks of dysentery. The tests for Entamoeba y Cryptosporidium were negative, but those of Giardia were repeatedly positive.

Previous research has dated traces of the parasite Entamoeba, which also causes dysentery, from the Greek Neolithic over 4,000 years ago. Previous work has also shown that users of the ancient Judean baths were infected by other intestinal parasites, such as whipworms, tapeworms and pinworms.

By Editor

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