How toilet habits killed off Dead Sea Scrolls sect

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The Independent US

Sometimes, the best survival instincts can be deadly. According to intriguing new research by an international team of Biblical scholars, the religious sect associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been done in by its own scrupulous toilet habits.

The Essenes, who established an ascetic community at Qumran on the north-western shores of the Dead Sea, rejected the common Bedouin practice of relieving themselves in the open. Instead, they assigned a dumping ground about half a mile from their community and buried their waste there, believing the practice to be more hygienic.

All that effort, though, appears to have been counterproductive. The parasites and harmful bacteria associated with human waste would have been quickly killed off by the desert sun had they remained above ground. Once buried, they could survive and thrive, creating a toxic environment that infected members of the Essene sect as they walked to and from their toilet area. The parasites almost certainly bred in a special cistern used in religious cleansing ceremonies, providing a compelling reason for the early deaths of many Essenes.

"Some people might laugh, but it is terribly sad," one of the scholars, James Tabor of the University of North Carolina, told the Los Angeles Times. "They were so dedicated and had such a strenuous lifestyle, but they were probably lowering their life expectancy and ruining their health in an effort to do what is right." The toilet research conducted by Dr Tabor and his colleagues stemmed, curiously, from a much broader controversy over the authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Several scholars have questioned whether the Essenes really wrote them, or even if they ever established a community at Qumran.

Dr Tabor and Joseph Zias of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem took their cue from passages in the Scrolls specifying rules for toilet hygiene. They found an area of soft ground north-west of Qumran, took soil samples and sent them to a French colleague for analysis. The colleague, Stephnie Harter-Lailheugue, found preserved eggs and other remnants of roundworms, tapeworms, whipworms and pinworms. Samples taken from surrounding areas were, by contrast, entirely barren.

The toilet area is now an important piece of evidence linking the Qumran site to the Scrolls and thus belies recent theories that, for example, the Scrolls were hidden in the caves at Qumran by Jews from Jerusalem fleeing the oppression of Roman occupation.

The toilet also provides a compelling explanation for earlier research into the Qumran cemetery, which established that barely one in 20 bodies buried there had survived to the age of 40. Cemeteries from the same period excavated near Jericho have shown that, more typically, half the population would survive beyond 40.

"The graveyard at Qumran is the unhealthiest group I have ever studied in over 30 years," Dr Zias told the Times.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been a constant source of fascination since their chance discovery by Bedouin tribesmen in 1947. They provide a rare, if not unique, insight into life and customs around the time of Jesus's life and death. They are also the only Biblical-era documents known to have been written before AD100. In other words, they predate the Gospels.

Just about every aspect of the scrolls has been subject to theorising. While religious scholars have agonised over the question of whether, say, the Scrolls were written by the Essenes themselves or by an Essene splinter group, conspiracy theorists have posited that the Scrolls were somehow fabricated or planted by extra-terrestrials.

One intriguing, but almost entirely unsupported, theory suggests the Catholic Church deliberately suppressed publication of the Scrolls to protect its image of Jesus and his life.