Ancient bottom wipers yield evidence of diseases carried along the Silk Road

‘Personal hygiene sticks’ excavated from a 2,000-year-old latrine pit have preserved evidence of the transmission route for infectious diseases

2000-year-old personal hygiene sticks with remains of cloth, excavated from the latrine at Xuanquanzhi. Photograph: Hui-Yuan Yeh/ Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Travellers on the Silk Road, the most famous trade route of the ancient world, were bringing more than the precious fabric with them out of China. Some bamboo sticks with scraps of grimy cloth wound around them have been identified as bottom wipers from a latrine pit in a 2,000-year-old Chinese relay station on the Silk Road. They have also preserved the first solid evidence of disease spread from east to west by travellers.

Samples of ancient faeces scraped off the fabric and brought back to a laboratory in Cambridge have revealed eggs from four species of parasites, including Chinese liver fluke. The fluke needs marshy conditions to complete its life cycle, so could not have come from the desert area around the ancient Xuanquanzhi relay station.

The two publish their findings on what are politely styled “personal hygiene sticks” this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. They found roundworm, whipworm, tapeworm – and the Chinese liver fluke, whose nearest endemic area is around 1,500 km away, though the particular species is most common even further away, in Guandong Province, approximately 2,000 km from the site.

“When I first saw the Chinese liver fluke egg down the microscope, I knew that we had made a momentous discovery,” Hui-Yuan said. “Our study is the first to use archaeological evidence from a site on the Silk Road to demonstrate that travellers were taking infectious diseases with them over these huge distances.”

Mitchell said that while it had been suggested that the merchants, soldiers and government officials travelling along the route into the Middle East and on to the Mediterranean could have brought infections with them, there had never been any solid proof. The transmission route for diseases including bubonic plague, anthrax and leprosy, could instead have been through India, or by Mongolia and Russia to the north.

“Now for the first time we know that liver fluke definitely did come along the Silk Road, and if so, we can assume that other diseases came by the same route. It’s always nice to have proof,” Mitchell said.

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