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In Ancient Times, Even the Rich Had Parasites
  • Cara Murez
  • Posted January 12, 2022

In Ancient Times, Even the Rich Had Parasites

In ancient times, intestinal parasites weren't just an affliction of the poor. Even the well-to-do had them.

Researchers studied the contents of a cesspit beneath a toilet in Jerusalem. They found the remains of several types of intestinal parasite eggs that would have resulted from poor sanitary conditions.

But this wasn't just any toilet. It was in the garden of a luxury estate uncovered at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, which dates back to the mid-7th century BC.

The stone toilet seat was in the estate's "restroom." The presence of the worms indicates that even the wealthy residents of Jerusalem at that time suffered from diseases and epidemics, according to Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

"The findings of this study are among the earliest observed in Israel to date," said Dafna Langgut, director of the university's Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments.

"These are durable eggs, and under the special conditions provided by the cesspit, they survived for nearly 2,700 years. Intestinal worms are parasites that cause symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and itching. Some of them are especially dangerous for children and can lead to malnutrition, developmental delays, nervous system damage and, in extreme cases, even death," Langgut said in a university news release.

The egg remains were discovered as part of a salvage excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority. They belonged to roundworm, tapeworm, whipworm and pinworm.

Several possibilities could have caused the infection. Poor sanitary conditions may have led to fecal contamination of food and drinking water, Langgut said. It also could have been lack of hygiene awareness, not knowing to wash hands. Perhaps human feces were used to fertilize field crops. The parasitic infection also could have resulted from consuming improperly cooked beef or pork.

Recovery from intestinal worms was difficult to impossible at that time. Those infected could suffer from the parasites for the rest of their lives.

It is quite possible that the findings indicate a long-lasting infectious disease that affected the entire population. Though these parasites still exist now, medical science has advanced to diagnose and treat for them.

"Studies like this one help us document the history of infectious diseases in our area and provide us with a window into the lives of people in ancient times," Langgut said.

The findings appear online ahead of print publication in the March issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about parasites.

SOURCE: Tel-Aviv University, news release, Jan. 3, 2022

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