'Breakthrough' archeological discovery a 'bold assumption,' say Vietnamese scientists

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Last week, a group of Australian and Vietnamese archaeologists heralded the discovery of Vietnam's earliest man-made latrine, but other local scientists say the discovery is more assumption than breakthrough.

The finding occurred at the Rach Nui site, a 1-hectare ancient man-made mound about five meters tall, surrounded by small tidal streams and mangrove swamps in the southern province of Long An, 30 kilometers away from HCMC, according to a report by ABC Australia.

The site has been the location of previous archaeological digs in 1978 and 2003.  

One of the team's archaeologists, Dr Marc Oxenham from Australian National University, told Radio Australia that preserved human and dog waste had been found at the site during the seven-week dig, giving archaeologists valuable insights into the diet of people of the time.

The team thinks the so-called latrine is about 3,500 years old, according to the report. The report also said there might be evidence of other ancient structures in the area as well.

"[This] not only confirms that this community was growing domesticated crops at this time but this variety of millet is from China and may provide clues into the origins of farming in southern Vietnam and indeed South-East Asia as a whole," said the Australian scientist.

However, a local professor in charge of managing the excavation said just because animal feces had been found doesn't mean the site was definitely a toilet or latrine.

He also said such a discovery wasn't new in Southeast Asia, as similar discoveries had been made in the Philippines and Japan, without experts deeming those sites latrines.

He said that while collections of animal feces may hint at the training and taming of animals, it is no way a sure bet to say the place was a toilet. 

Scientist Nguyen Khanh Trung Kien, head of the excavation project, said the site was most likely just the foundation of ancient mud homes, which were often built directly on the ground where feces mixed with earth.

Dr. Vu The Long, former chief of the Vietnam Archaeology Institute's Human and Environment Research Division, said the collection of dog feces at the site was similar to findings at other nearby localities that were not deemed latrines.

"Feces together with animal bones had been found at the Giong Noi relic site in Ben Tre province, which is very near and has a similar landscape and ecosystem as Rach Nui," he said. "But in the case of the Ben Tre discovery, we assumed it had served as a space for animal sacrifice, where after such ceremonies dogs came to eat bone and made their own waste as well."

Long said, therefore, that calling the area a "3,500 year-old latrine" for sure was "a bold assumption, unless the scientists can find traces of pits for feces storage and determine that there is human feces there, as well as the fossil food waste involved with the types of parasites in human intestines."

Long in cooperation with the Department of Preventive Health has researched several types of latrines in the Mekong Delta region.

He said known historical sanitation practices needed to be taken into account.

"It would be exciting to find a 3,500-year-old toilet here, but for me, it is still early to make the conclusion," he said.

Long, who was among members of a 1978 excavation team at Rach Nui, said that dog bones and feces were also found at that time .

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