The ancient Silk Road which carried tea, fabrics and spices between the Orient and Europe apparently also transferred parasites and disease, say researchers looking at a 2,000-year-old roadside lavatory.
British and Chinese academics examining ‘personal hygiene sticks’, or bottom-wipers, have found evidence that travellers carried the eggs of roundworm, whipworm, tapeworm and Chinese liver fluke and may have also carried bubonic plague, leprosy and anthrax.
The sticks – bamboo wrapped with small pieces of cloth – date back to the Silk Road’s heyday under the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220) and were unearthed in Xuanquanzhi in modern Gansu province, a popular resting spot for merchant caravans.
Researchers say the liver fluke which causes abdominal pain, diarrhoea, jaundice and liver cancer comes from marshy areas up to 1,000 miles away and could not have survived in the arid area around Xuanquanzhi.
‘When I first saw the Chinese fluke egg down the microscope I knew we had made a momentous discovery,’ said Ivy Hui-Yuan Yeh from Cambridge University’s Archaeology and Anthropology Department.
‘Our study is the first to use archaeological evidence from a site on the Silk Road to demonstrate that travellers took infectious diseases with them,’ she said.
Scientist have long suspected that disease was carried by ancient travellers because similar strains were found in China and Europe, but it was unclear if they were going through Mongolia and Russia, through the south via India, or on the Silk Road via Persia and Arabia.
‘Until now, there was no proof that the Silk Road was responsible,’ said Doctor Piers Mitchell, the study leader.
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