The Iron Age users of two ancient toilets in Jerusalem were not a healthy bunch, according to an analysis of poop samples from the 2,500-year-old latrines.
Researchers found traces of dysentery-causing parasites in material excavated from the cesspits below the two stone toilets that would have belonged to elite households in the city. Back then, Jerusalem was a vibrant political and religious center in the Assyrian empire and home to between 8,000 and 25,000 people.
It’s the earliest known evidence of a disease called Giardia duodenalis, although the infection, which causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and weight loss, had previously been identified in Roman-era Turkey and in medieval Israel.
“Dysentery is spread by faeces 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 over-crowding, heat and flies, and limited water available in the summer,” said Dr. Piers Mitchell, lead author of the study that published Thursday in the scientific journal Parasitology and an honorary fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, in a statement.
Most of those who die from dysentery caused by Giardia today are children, and chronic infection in kids can lead to stunted growth, impaired cognitive function and failure to thrive.