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Ancient Roman Toilets May Have Spread Parasites All Over Europe

Update Date: Jan 11, 2016 01:02 PM EST
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According to history books, Ancient Romans supposedly lent the marvelous wonders of their civilization to the lands their mighty army occupied. We were told that their glorious exports to Romanized Europe included the state-of-the-art and innovative sanitation technologies such as the now famous flush latrines. But a new study tells us to think twice of our romanticized image about Ancient Rome and all its glory.

Romans excelled in engineering as manifested in the majestic buildings they left us with. Well-preserved sewage system, good plumbing, and public toilets tell us that Rome seemed to have seriously dealt with the problems of sanitation. Yet, a University of Cambridge-led study revealed a surprising prevalence of parasites in Roman times worse than the pre-Roman era in Europe.

The research was the work of a team of experts from Cambridge's Archaeology and Anthropology Department which looked into archeological evidence of parasites in Romanized Europe. Their ultimate aim was to analyze the "health consequences of conquering an empire" as mentioned in article that appeared on Cambridge University website.

The study involved a careful examination of research literature on Roman-era parasites and diseases as well as looking at samples such as fossilized human feces, ancient toilet contents, cesspits, garbage piles, combs, and burials.

Despite Rome's hygiene and sanitation efforts, there was no evidence that people's overall health situation improved in their watch.

"I thought we'd see a drop in the intestinal parasites that are spread by feces and poor sanitation compared with the Iron Age, when there weren't any toilets. But, in fact, I didn't see a drop at all," said lead author Piers Mitchell as quoted saying by NPR.

Interestingly, ancient evidence of durable traces of internal and external parasites seemed to prove him right.

"The eggs of most intestinal helminths can be preserved for thousands of years in the right conditions, due to their tough chitinous walls. Human feces in archaeological contexts can be recovered from latrine soil...Amoeba remains can be detected by antibodies that react to them. Fleas, ticks, and mites can be detected by fine sieving of soil, hair combs, mummies or ancient textiles," the researchers wrote as mentioned by Gizmodo.

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