An analysis of ancient feces in two Jerusalem latrines dating back to the Iron Age biblical Kingdom of Judah uncovered traces of the single-celled microorganism Giardia duodenalis, a common cause of debilitating diarrhea in ancient feces.
The aim of the study, published in the peer-reviewed Parasitology journal by a team comprised of researchers from the University of Cambridge, Tel Aviv University, and the Israel Antiquities Authority, was to "determine if the protozoa that cause dysentery might have been present in Jerusalem, the capital of the Kingdom of Judah, during the Iron Age."
To this effect they analyzed sediments from two latrines dating to this time period, with one of them dating from the 7th century BCE and another from the 7th to early 6th century BCE.
The finding of Giardia duodenalis, according to the researchers, is the first microbiological evidence for infective diarrhoeal illnesses in that time. Generally, this is the earliest currently known evidence of Giardia duodenalis.
Dysentery plagues in the ancient near east
After adding this to previously known descriptions from 2nd and 1st millennium BCE Mesopotamian medical texts, they see it as likely that dysentery outbreaks due to Giardia plagued towns throughout the near east.
2,500-year-old faeces from biblical Jerusalem has been found to contain traces of parasites that cause diarrhoea.The study from @UCamArchaeology suggest dysentery was rife in the ancient Kingdom of Judah https://t.co/EIz5K6hZ81— Cambridge University (@Cambridge_Uni) May 26, 2023
"These early written sources do not provide causes of diarrhea, but they encourage us to apply modern techniques to investigate which pathogens might have been involved," lead author Dr. Piers Mitchell from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology told science website phys.org. "We know for sure that Giardia was one of those infections responsible."
"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," said Mitchell.
"Dysentery is a term that describes intestinal infectious diseases caused by parasites and bacteria that trigger diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and dehydration. It can be fatal, particularly for young children."
"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 added.
One of the toilets used for the study was found in Armon Hanatziv in southern Jerusalem. The area was excavated in 2019 and dated to the time of King Manasseh who ruled for fifty years as a vassal king under Assyrian domination in the middle of the 7th century.
The second toilet was found in a building called the House of Ahiel, probably the house of an upper-class family. The dating here is less clear, but probably around the 8th century BCE. It was destroyed in 586 BCE, when Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II brutally sacked Jerusalem for a second time after its citizens stopped paying him tribute, ending the Kingdom of Judah.