Nadine Fandialan

A recent scientific discovery found archaic evidence that may prove the existence of dysentery-causing parasites in the ancient city of Jerusalem.

Photo Courtesy of Cambridge Core/Science News

Dysentery is a known threat across historical periods, such as the Oregon Trail. Contagious and fatal, this illness materializes as a deadly mixture of diarrhea, cramps, and fever. It is commonly caused by Giardia (specifically Giardia duodenalis); this microscopic parasite is known to travel and infect hosts through contaminated water sources or contact with infected feces. Until today, the parasite can be observed infecting human guts and intestines, which causes diseases worldwide.

A new finding recently traced the possible “presence” of the Giardia parasite in ancient Jerusalem. The parasite has been excavated from the remains of two 2600-year-old toilets once used by the “wealthy” citizens of the sacred city. In the paper published by Cambridge University Press, the researchers came to the conclusion that “the fact that the sediment from both Iron Age cesspits was positive for Giardia would suggest that this parasite was endemic in the region of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah during the 7th to early 6th century BCE.”

Although it is widely known that intestinal parasites can be preserved for many centuries underground, protozoa samples of parasitism like Giardia are an exception. The parasite species is very fragile and does not make ancient samples that can be recognized under the light microscope. Nonetheless, researchers stated that Giardia is a zoonotic parasite that can affect humans and other mammals. Hence, it would be more indicative of its “long-term involvement” in human evolutionary biology if it were known that the disease is prevalent in wild non-human primates in Africa.

The Iron Age Jerusalem is known for its luxurious peak — from carved stone seats to decorative ornaments. Yet, this newly discovered archeological record just revealed that even ancient civilizations couldn’t escape the stinky leak of dysentery.