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2,000-year-old bottom wipers yield evidence of diseases carried along the Silk Road

Ian Harvey
Photo credit: Hui-Yuan Yeh/ Journal of Archaeological Science
Photo credit: Hui-Yuan Yeh/ Journal of Archaeological Science

It was the celebrated trade route that saw spices, luxuriant fabrics, and enormous wealth flow between the Eastern and Western worlds.

A new study has shown that a 2,000-year-old toilet found near a desert in northwest China has proven the Silk Road was also accountable for the exchange of something else too – infectious illnesses.

While examining the contents of a person’s bowel may be something doctors do to assist in diagnosing their patients, it seems it can as well give us an insight far back into the past.

Archaeologists have discovered that diseases were dispersed over thousands of miles end to of the Silk Trade road by explorers who passed from east to west. They discovered parasitic worm eggs in conserved feces on “personal sanitation sticks” found in a latrine at an antique way station along the route.

The Silk Road was  the trade route that predominantly went through Asia and joined China to the Mediterranean Sea. It was originally named after the lucrative trade in Chinese silk under the Han Dynasty in about 202BC. Soon after, other valuable objects such as jade, silver, gold, bronzes and spice were also being conveyed originally between China and Egypt, then later to early Greece and Rome, and ultimately to Medieval Europe.

While numerous sea routes were used by sailors to transfer goods, traders passing overland were believed to have journeyed in the northern and southern directions that evaded the Taklamakan Desert in North West China.

The northern path took numerous trails through Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan; the southern path went right through to the Karakoram Mountains that stand on the boundary of Pakistan, India, and China.

The routes came together again near Merv in Turkmenistan before winding west to the south of the Caspian Sea. Archaeologists inspected the conserved feces on ancient “personal sanitation sticks”, which were believed to be used to sponge the buttocks of people around 111BC and 109AD.

They found eggs from four species of bloodsucking maggots existing in the ancient droppings left on the hygiene wands. It appears one of these organisms may have traveled along the Silk Road from a place at least 1,000 miles away. The study proposes that while worldwide tourism has made it faster for sickness to be transferred everywhere around the planet, this kind of dispersal has been going on for thousands of centuries.

The antique latrine was discovered at the ancient remnants of Xuanquanzhi in the Tarim Basin in northwest China near the immense sandy area of the Taklamakan desert. Xuanquanzhi is believed to have been a transmit position on the Silk Road, which came to importance during the Han Dynasty in China that reigned from 202BC to 220AD.

Here is another story from us: 3,000-year-old British settlement reveals Middle Eastern treasure

The location was a famous stop where explorers changed horses and distributed letters. Traders, voyagers, militias, and administration officials toured along the way near the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News