Biology

Ancient Silk Road hygiene sticks lead to a "fluke" discovery

Ancient Silk Road hygiene stic...
The hygiene sticks with cloth remnants that the researchers analyzed to study the spread of disease along the Silk Road
The hygiene sticks with cloth remnants that the researchers analyzed to study the spread of disease along the Silk Road
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The hygiene sticks with cloth remnants that the researchers analyzed to study the spread of disease along the Silk Road
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The hygiene sticks with cloth remnants that the researchers analyzed to study the spread of disease along the Silk Road

Thousands of years ago, travelers and traders carried goods across the vast distances between Europe, the Middle East and Asia along routes that collectively become known as the Silk Road. Named after the silks that were exported from China, the routes helped spread news, art and culture through a large part of the world. Now, a new study focused on a 2,000-year-old Silk Road latrine shows that the routes also helped spread something else – disease.

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and China's Academy of Social Sciences and Gansu Institute for Cultural Relics and Archaeology investigated latrines at the Xuanquanzhi relay station, an archeological site in northwestern China that once served as a rest stop of sorts along the Silk Road. It was built in 111 BC and used until 109 AD (the Silk Road itself is generally acknowledged to have existed from about 130 BCE to about the mid 1400s).

There they found hygeine sticks that had bits of cloth stuck to them that were used by people to clean up after using the latrine. Based on their function, the sticks also held bits of ancient feces. By analyzing the feces, the researchers found the eggs from four species of parasitic worms: roundworm, whipworm, tapeworm and Chinese liver fluke.

"This may seem surprising," writes Cambridge researcher and study co-author Piers Mitchell on academic site The Conversation, "but the eggs of many species of intestinal worms are very tough and may survive thousands of years in the ground."

Of the parasites, one stood out – the liver fluke.

That's because the location of the archeological site is situated in a dry area of the country. In fact, it's not too far away from China's Takla Makan Desert. The thing is, Chinese liver flukes are only native to wet marshy areas, so there's no way it could have been living in the area of the latrine. In fact, Mitchell says, it must first pass through a water snail and then a freshwater fish which much be eaten raw before infecting humans. Because no such animals exist near the latrine, the parasite must have been brought there by a traveler.

So just how far did that traveler bring his unfortunate cargo?

According to the researchers, based on current conditions, the only area it could have come from is about 1,500 km (923 mi) away. And today, the area where most of the infections are found is even farther, at 2,000 km (1,243 mi) away.

"When I first saw the Chinese liver fluke egg down the microscope I knew that we had made a momentous discovery," said Hui-Yuan Yeh, one of the study's authors. "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."

While it's been previously suggested that major diseases like the bubonic plague, leprosy and anthrax spread along the Silk Road, the researchers say that there's never been hard-and-fast proof, because the organisms could have taken a different route between China and Europe.

"Our finding suggests that we now know for sure that the Silk Road was responsible for spreading infectious diseases in ancient times," says Mitchell. "This makes more likely previous proposals that bubonic plague, leprosy and anthrax could also have been spread along it."

The research has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Source: University of Cambridge, The Conversation

6 comments
moonflower13
interesting! now what the heck is a "hygiene stick"?? some description of use could be helpful.....
BGriffin
Seems like a bit of a stretch to call carrying the fluke there the same thing as carrying an infectious disease, if in fact the fluke could not be spread due to lack of intermediary hosts.
Sergiuss
The influence of human movements at great distances, as with the troops of Genghis Khan, who also used the Silk Road, are more effective to carry diseases than the natural movement of migratory birds. Mainly because the man is host to more diseases than birds.
DomainRider
@moonflower13 - it was a stick with cloth wrapped around that you wiped your bottom with at the latrine. If you were lucky, you'd get a fresh one...
MD
So the ancient traders were a lot more advanced than the modern cultures who use their Left hand for the dirty business... Hygene dealing with Number 2's is number 1 for disease control and prevention, now as much as then.
Gato
This ties in with historical writings of both the Ghobi / Gobi and Sahara Deserts where they were much smaller, if not non-existent. Mali, for the Sahara, had at one time lush and tropical, as well as running rivers. The Gobi was an agricultural, marshland, and forested area. But mankind has been great at the desertification process, which almost happened in the US MidWest / Plains states during the "Dust-bowl period" in the 1930's due to poor agriculture techniques / processes, as well as herd animals, that are sheep and goats, who leave virtually nothing behind in plant life.