Protozoan Pathogens – Giardia duodenalis and dysentery in Iron Age Jerusalem

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Infective diarrheal illnesses have long been a significant health concern caused by pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and protozoan parasites. These pathogens are commonly transmitted through the contamination of water and food by human feces.

While the health impact of these pathogens is well-known today, identifying the specific pathogens responsible for diarrheal diseases in ancient populations poses a challenge. This article explores the use of modern techniques to detect protozoan parasites in ancient civilizations, focusing on the Near East region prior to the Roman period.

Detecting Protozoan Parasites in Ancient Populations

Protozoan parasites, including Entamoeba histolytica, Cryptosporidium sp., and Giardia duodenalis, have been identified in various early human populations using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs) and microscopy with immunofluorescent monoclonal antibodies. These techniques have proven successful in detecting these protozoa even when the cysts are damaged or deformed during the decomposition of feces.

Evidence of Protozoan Pathogens in Ancient Civilizations

Studies have revealed the presence of protozoan pathogens in different regions and time periods. Entamoeba histolytica has been found in Neolithic Greece (5000-2000 BCE), while Cryptosporidium sp. was identified in 600-800 CE Mexico. Giardia duodenalis has been detected in a coprolite from a cave in Tennessee, USA (600-0 BCE), as well as in Roman period sites in Turkey and Italy (2nd-5th century CE). These findings suggest that these protozoa have been infecting humans in various regions of the world throughout history.

Importance of Investigating Early Societies

Studying protozoan infections in early societies provides insights into the origin and spread of these pathogens. By applying ELISAs and other detection methods, researchers can determine the regions from which each organism originated and track their spread through migrations, trade, and military invasions. This information contributes to our understanding of the dynamics of infectious diseases in ancient populations.

Case Study: Jerusalem in the 7th to early 6th century BCE

During this period, Jerusalem served as the capital of the Kingdom of Judah, a vassal kingdom under the Assyrian empire. Jerusalem was a vibrant political and religious center with a growing population. Excavations at Armon ha-Natziv in south Jerusalem uncovered an estate with notable architectural elements and a stone toilet seat believed to have fallen into a cesspit. Sediment analysis of the cesspit revealed the presence of parasite eggs, including those of whipworm, roundworm, Taenia sp. tapeworm, and pinworm.

Another stone toilet seat was found in the House of Ahiel, a building dating to the 8th century BCE. Sediment analysis of its associated cesspit also identified whipworm and Taenia sp. tapeworm eggs. These findings indicate the presence of intestinal helminths in the ancient population of Jerusalem.

Results:

The results of the ELISA analysis for the presence of Entamoeba histolytica, Giardia duodenalis, and Cryptosporidium sp. in the sediment samples from the cesspits in Jerusalem revealed significant findings. The sample from the House of Ahiel cesspit, dated to the 8th century BCE, tested positive for the presence of whipworm eggs (Trichuris sp.) and Taenia sp. tapeworm eggs. This indicates that the inhabitants of Jerusalem during that period were infected with these intestinal parasites.

In the case of the Armon ha-Natziv cesspit, which dates back to the mid-7th century BCE, three different samples were analyzed. All three samples tested positive for the presence of Giardia duodenalis, a protozoan parasite known to cause diarrheal illness in humans. This finding suggests that individuals living in Jerusalem during this period were likely affected by giardiasis, a common cause of diarrhea.

The detection of Giardia duodenalis in the Armon ha-Natziv cesspit is particularly noteworthy because it provides evidence of protozoan infection in an ancient population. Protozoa are notoriously difficult to detect in archaeological samples due to the fragile nature of their cysts, which are easily deformed and damaged over time. However, the use of ELISA, along with the application of immunofluorescent monoclonal antibodies, has proven to be a successful method for identifying protozoan organisms even when their cysts are damaged and deformed.

These findings contribute to our understanding of the prevalence and impact of infectious diarrheal illnesses in ancient civilizations. The presence of Giardia duodenalis and the previously identified presence of Entamoeba histolytica and Cryptosporidium sp. in archaeological samples from various regions around the world suggest that these pathogens have been infecting humans for thousands of years. This raises questions about the origins and spread of these organisms and their potential impact on ancient populations.

The study of ancient fecal material provides valuable insights into the health and living conditions of past societies. The presence of intestinal parasites in the analyzed samples indicates the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene practices in ancient Jerusalem. Overcrowding, the absence of organized sewage systems, and a limited understanding of disease transmission likely contributed to the spread of diarrheal illnesses in these communities.

It is important to note that this study focused on a specific region and time period, and further research is needed to explore the presence of these pathogens in other ancient societies. Future studies utilizing ELISA and similar techniques should be conducted to investigate the prevalence of protozoan parasites in different regions and time periods, shedding light on the global distribution and evolution of these pathogens.

The use of modern techniques to investigate the causes of diarrheal illnesses mentioned in ancient texts, such as the Mesopotamian medical texts from the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE, is an important avenue for research. While these early written sources do not provide detailed information about specific pathogens, they offer insights into the diseases that affected ancient populations. By applying modern techniques, such as ELISA, to ancient samples, researchers can bridge the gap between ancient texts and scientific understanding, potentially identifying the pathogens responsible for these ancient diseases.

In conclusion, this study demonstrates the successful application of ELISA analysis to ancient sediment samples from Jerusalem, revealing evidence of intestinal parasites in ancient populations. The detection of whipworm and tapeworm eggs in the House of Ahiel cesspit, along with the presence of Giardia duodenalis in the Armon ha-Natziv cesspit, provides valuable insights into the health and living conditions of people in ancient Jerusalem. These findings contribute to our understanding of the prevalence and impact of infectious diarrheal illnesses in ancient civilizations and highlight the need for further research in this field.

The identification of specific pathogens, such as Entamoeba histolytica, Giardia duodenalis, and Cryptosporidium sp., in ancient samples also raises questions about the transmission routes and sources of infection in these populations. It is important to consider various factors, including water sources, food handling practices, and human-animal interactions, which could have contributed to the spread of these pathogens.

Figure 1. Map indicating location of House of Ahiel and Armon ha-Natziv, where the 2 Iron Age latrines were found at excavation. Image credit: Dafna Langgut.

Figure 2. Stone toilet seats from Armon ha-Natziv (A, left) and House of Ahiel (B, right). Image credit: (A) Y. Billig, (B) F. Vukosavović.

Additionally, future studies could explore the genetic diversity and evolution of these ancient pathogens. By extracting and analyzing DNA from the identified parasites, researchers can gain insights into the genetic variations and potential changes in virulence over time. This could help trace the origins and evolutionary history of these pathogens and provide a better understanding of their impact on ancient societies.

Furthermore, the application of advanced technologies, such as metagenomics, could enhance our understanding of the overall microbial composition of ancient populations. Metagenomic analysis allows for the identification of a wide range of microorganisms present in a given sample, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. By examining the complete microbial community, researchers can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the ancient gut microbiota and its potential interactions with pathogens.

The integration of multidisciplinary approaches, combining archaeological, historical, and microbiological methods, is crucial for advancing our knowledge in this field. Collaboration between archaeologists, historians, microbiologists, and other relevant experts can lead to more comprehensive studies and a deeper understanding of ancient diseases and their societal implications.

Overall, the analysis of ancient sediment samples from Jerusalem using ELISA has provided significant insights into the presence of intestinal parasites and protozoa in ancient populations. These findings contribute to our understanding of the health conditions and challenges faced by ancient societies, as well as the transmission and impact of infectious diseases throughout history. Continued research in this area will undoubtedly uncover more fascinating discoveries and contribute to our knowledge of both ancient and modern infectious diseases.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this study demonstrates the successful application of ELISA analysis to ancient sediment samples from Jerusalem, revealing evidence of intestinal parasites in ancient populations. The detection of whipworm and tapeworm eggs in the House of Ahiel cesspit, along with the presence of Giardia duodenalis in the Armon ha-Natziv cesspit, provides valuable insights into the health and living conditions of people in ancient Jerusalem. These findings contribute to our understanding of the prevalence and impact of infectious diarrheal illnesses in ancient civilizations and highlight the need for further research in this field.


reference link : https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/parasitology/article/giardia-duodenalis-and-dysentery-in-iron-age-jerusalem-7th6th-century-bce/FD98E6D61F8D264616547EA4EBED69E4

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