2,500-year-old toilets reveal that the people of ancient Jerusalem were afflicted by painful stomach cramps and diarrhea

Stone toilet seats from Armon ha-Natziv (A, left) and House of Ahiel (B, right)
Stone toilet seats from Armon ha-Natziv (A, left) and House of Ahiel (B, right) in Jerusalem's Old City.(A) Y. Billig, (B) F. Vukosavović/Cambridge University Press
  • Scientist believe they found the earliest evidence of a dysentery-causing parasite in a new study.

  • Archeologists excavated the cesspits below two toilets from Iron Age Jerusalem.

  • The research suggests the disease was 'endemic' in the Kingdom of Judah.

Scientists believe they discovered the oldest-known evidence of a parasite that causes "debilitating diarrhea" after excavating the cesspits of 2,500-year-old latrines from the biblical Kingdom of Judah.

In a new study published on Friday in the journal Parasitology, analysis of feces from biblical times revealed the difficulties of everyday life in ancient Jerusalem after scientists discovered the earliest-known evidence of a microorganism called "Giardia duodenalis" which causes dysentery — and infection of the intestine — in their samples.

"The fact that these parasites were present in sediment from two Iron Age Jerusalem cesspits suggests that dysentery was endemic in the Kingdom of Judah," Piers Mitchell, a researcher at Cambridge's Department of Archaeology and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Dysentery symptoms include diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and stomach cramps.

"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," Mitchell said.

The team of researchers found evidence of the parasite under stone toilets in an excavation of two building complexes in the Old City, dating back to the 7th century BC, according to a University of Cambridge press release. One, excavated in 2019, was from a "lavishly decorated" estate at Armon ha-Natziv.

At the time, Jerusalem was the capital of Judah — a vassal state under the control of the Assyrian Empire.

The two stone toilets had a curve for sitting and two holes for defecation and urination.

"Toilets with cesspits from this time are relatively rare and were usually made only for the elite," Mitchell said.

The study suggests the "long-term presence" of the disease across the Near East. While the research indicates the earliest known evidence of the diarrhea-causing parasite, it has also been identified during the epoch of the Roman Empire and the medieval and Ottoman periods, the study said.

Indeed, medical texts from the first and second millennium BC describe diarrhea afflicting the Near and Middle East populations.

"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," one ancient text reads, according to the press release.

The cuneiform word in the texts to describe the illness is "sà si-sá," showing the affliction's prevalence at the time.

Scientists used a bio-molecular technique called "Elisa" to study the decomposed biblical-period feces.

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