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Science&TechnologyArcheologyFour types of parasites found in feces from ancient Judea

Four types of parasites found in feces from ancient Judea

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In the Jerusalem palace of the 7th century BC, evidence was found that representatives of the nobility did not follow the rules of hygiene too much.

In 2019-2020, archaeologists unearthed an unusual palace in the southern part of Jerusalem. The find was dated around the 7th century BC. Scholars believed that its construction dates back to the period between the reigns of kings Hezekiah (13th king of Judah) and Josiah (16th king of Judah). Then the city was actively built up after the siege of the Assyrians in 701 BC. It is interesting that the architectural elements of the palace are not similar to those typical for that period. Among other things, archaeologists have found three full stone capitals of medium size and balustrades, consisting of columns with very miniature capitals, made in the protoeolian style.

The head of the excavation, Ya’akov Billig of the Israel Antiquities Authority, noted that the level of craftsmanship of these capitals is the best of the artifacts of that period (from those found to date), and they are also perfectly preserved.

The presence of such an estate speaks of close cultural ties between Ancient Judea and Hellas (columns in the ancient Greek style are most likely the work of a Greek architect). And, in addition, a local customer who has a taste for architecture that was not the most common in the Middle East (at that time). It is not entirely clear to whom the palace belonged, it is only clear that it was a very rich man. Some researchers have suggested that the king of Judea lived there, but there is no confirmation of this hypothesis yet. From the hill on which the estate is located, views of the City of David and the Judean Desert open up.

According to the pollen results, there was an orchard adjacent to the palace. And in the garden, archaeologists have discovered several more buildings. One of them was identified as a toilet: a large water tank and a stone seat with a hole in the center. Several samples of paleofeces were taken from the sediments for further research, which was carried out by Dafna Langgut from Tel Aviv University (Israel). The results of the work were published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

In six samples of paleofeces, Langgut found quite well-preserved eggs of four types of parasites: whipworm (Trichuris trichiura), bovine tapeworm (Taenia sp.), Roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides), and pinworms (Enterobius vermicularis).

It should be noted that roundworms and whipworms cause severe infectious diseases, which, in turn, sometimes lead to growth retardation in children. Both types of parasites are transmitted by the fecal-oral route – that is, infection with them occurs due to poor sanitary and hygienic conditions. This does not go well with the very presence of a toilet in the estate: historians believe that such structures were built only in wealthy houses, where hygiene had to be taken care of.

Langgut speculates that contamination may have occurred due to contamination of food or water with faecal waste. We know that the inhabitants of Judea used human feces to fertilize the fields, since the area around was not very suitable for agriculture. It was such an inhospitable area, by the way, that became the reason that even in the first millennium BC, the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the surrounding area switched to specialized farming – in contrast to the Mediterranean mixed agriculture. The soil of Judea is not suitable for every plant, but even specialized crop production required fertilization. And it was from them that the eggs of parasites could get into the aquifer.

Bovine tapeworm infects cattle and pigs, and already from them gets to humans and causes abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea. A person can get this parasite into the body if he eats poorly cooked (uncooked or uncooked) meat of an infected animal. It is unlikely that the inhabitants of the Jerusalem palace ate pork, but beef could well become a source of infection. Pinworm eggs were the least in the samples. The reason is most likely in their fragility – it is surprising that they have survived at all.

Archeoparasitology (or paleoparasitology) is a scientific direction at the intersection of parasitology, biological anthropology and some historical disciplines (archeology and ethnography). The study of the spread of parasites at different times allows you to better imagine the everyday details of people’s lives – their attitude to hygiene, the organization of life, agriculture and much more.

Photo: Stone toilet seat found during excavations in 2019 / © Ya’akov Billig

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