‘Bottom Wipers’ Reveal Secrets of China’s Silk Road

bottom wipes

Photograph: Hui-Yuan Yeh/ Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

It wasn’t just merchandise that was hauled along ancient China’s ‘Silk Road’: Recently discovered ‘bottom wipers’ – bamboo sticks with grimy fabric and more ‘earthy’ remains on them – revealed that both disease and animal species were inadvertently transported by traveling traders.

The sticks, found in a 2,000-year-old latrine, provided the first solid evidence that various species of parasites made the trip along the road, spreading disease from east to west, according to a recent article in The Guardian.

Originally published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (paywall), the report by Hui-Yuan Yeh, a researcher at Cambridge University, and several colleagues, notes that one of the parasites, found in feces stuck to the cloth on some sticks, was associated with the Chinese liver fluke. Because it needs marshy conditions to complete its life cycle, that 1 cm (.39 in) long parasite could not have come from the desert area around the ancient Xuanquanzhi relay station, the site of the excavated latrine.

In fact, the Guardian article said, “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. Two thousand years ago the parasite’s unfortunate host would have been a very unhappy traveler, producing symptoms including fever, griping pain, diarrhea and jaundice.

The Chinese liver fluke, which also has been associated with some kinds of cancer, presently is being studied as having potentially being useful in healing chronic wounds such as diabetic ulcers.

The Guardian noted that relay stations at oasis towns, where travelers 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, the article said.

The large Xuanquanzhi station was excavated just over 20 years ago. It has been dated to the Han dynasty, and was in use between 111BC to 109 AD. The most celebrated finds from the site are fragments of letters and other documents – including some written on silk.

But the ‘bottom wipe’ sticks will undoubtedly prove to be among its most interesting revelations.