People in Old Testament Jerusalem suffered from widespread dysentery, study finds

Study results indicate "long-term presence" of Giardia parasite in Near East populations.

May 26, 2023 - 03:30
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People in Old Testament Jerusalem suffered from widespread dysentery, study finds
The toilet seat from the estate at Armon ha-Natziv, circa mid-7th century BCE.

Enlarge / Fecal samples in sediment collected from beneath this stone toilet seat at Armon Hanatziv, circa mid-7th century BCE, showed evidence of a dysentery-causing parasite (Giardia II). So did samples from a near-identical stone toilet at House of Ahiel. (credit: Ya’akov Billig)

Last year, we reported on an analysis of soil samples collected from a stone toilet found within the ruins of a swanky villa, revealing the presence of parasitic eggs from four different species. Conclusion: The wealthy, privileged elite of Jerusalem in the seventh century BCE were plagued by poor sanitary conditions and resulting parasitic intestinal diseases. Now scientists have found evidence of a parasite that causes dysentery in soil samples collected from that same stone toilet, as well as a second stone toilet from the same region that is nearly identical in design. The results appear in a new paper published in the journal Parasitology.

"The fact that these parasites were present in sediment from two Iron Age cesspits suggests that dysentery was endemic in the Kingdom of Judah," said co-author Piers Mitchell, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. "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 overcrowding, heat and flies, and limited water available in the summer."

Archaeologists can learn a great deal by studying the remains of intestinal parasites in ancient feces. For instance, prior studies have compared fecal parasites found in hunter-gatherer and farming communities, thereby revealing dramatic dietary changes, as well as shifts in settlement patterns and social organization coinciding with the rise of agriculture. The domestication of animals, in particular, led to more parasitic infections in farming communities, while hunter-gatherer groups were exposed to fewer parasites and transmissible diseases given their nomadic lifestyle. This is even reflected in modern nomadic communities of hunter-gatherers.

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