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What Ancient Toilets Reveal About the History of the Human Gut

Poking through the contents of old outhouses is not exactly a common career objective, but it is proving to have an important role in science. Now that we can analyze ancient species down to the microbial level, we are learning what kind of microbiome people had in the pre-industrial world. Piers Mitchell is a Cambridge University paleopathologist, which means he studies fossilized microscopic life. In old latrines.

Mitchell knows his shit. As the director of Cambridge’s Ancient Parasites Laboratory, he’s studied storied stools across Europe, Asia, and Africa, some more than 9,000 years old, and when it comes to ancient piles, Mitchell keeps his finger on the pulse. “Whenever [an archaeologist] finds a latrine or coprolites in a part of the world where no one’s done any intestinal fecal analysis, I send them an email.”

According to Mitchell, our intestinal microbiome isn’t keeping up with the rapid pace of globalization. “Things are changing incredibly quickly,” he says, “but our genetics are still pre-industrial.” He associates modern ills such as high rates of allergies, obesity, and inflammatory bowel disease with modern substances that affect the gut, from antibiotics to fast food. “Parts of us are coping, but other parts are suffering,” Mitchell says.

Read how research on the poop left behind hundreds of years ago can help us treat modern digestive troubles at Atlas Obscura.

(Image courtesty of Uldis Kalejs)


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