(Photo: Hui-Yuan Yeh/Journal of Archaeological Science)
Archaeologists in western China found 2,000-year old "personal hygiene sticks" in a latrine pit. In the days before toilet paper, people would wrap cloths around sticks, then use those sticks to clean themselves after defecating.
The researchers sent the sticks to a laboratory for study and were delighted at the results. The bottom wipers from this ancient trading post along the Silk Road contained eggs from 4 parasites, including the Chinese liver fluke. This was the first clear evidence that diseases had spread from east to west by travelers along the Silk Road. The Guardian reports:
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 Chinese liver fluke originated thousands of miles away from the arid Tamrin Basin, an area including the Taklamakan Desert - one of the harshest on earth, dubbed “the desert of death” by the Chinese. 2,000 years ago the parasite’s unfortunate host would have been a very unhappy traveller, producing symptoms including fever, griping pain, diarrhoea and jaundice. It has also been associated with some forms of cancer.
The relay stations at oasis towns, where travellers could rest and buy food, were crucial for any traders on the Silk Road hoping to survive the desert crossing.The bone dry conditions at these sites have preserved a wealth of organic remains for archaeologists.