Ancient villagers living near to Stonehenge feasted on offal before feeding the scraps to dogs, new analysis of 4,500-year-old faeces suggests.
Researchers uncovered evidence of the eggs of parasitic worms which they believe shows humans were eating the internal organs of cattle.
They lived at a Neolithic settlement situated just 1.7 miles (2.8km) from the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Durrington Walls dates back to around 2,500 BC, when much of the famous stone monument was constructed, and experts think the site housed the people who built Stonehenge.
A team of archaeologists led by the University of Cambridge investigated 19 pieces of ancient faeces, or ‘coprolite’, found at the site and preserved for more than 4,500 years.
Stonehenge inhabitants feasted on offal before feeding the scraps to dogs, new analysis of 4,500-year-old faeces suggests. Researchers uncovered evidence of the eggs of parasitic worms (pictured), which they believe shows humans were eating the internal organs of cattle
A team of archaeologists led by the University of Cambridge investigated 19 pieces of ancient faeces, or ‘coprolite’ (pictured), found at the site and preserved for more than 4,500 years
WHAT ARE COPROLITES?
It’s not just bones that can provide a rich history of an ancient creature’s past.
Scientists also use something known as ‘coprolites’ to piece together clues about ancient history.
A coprolite is a fossilised faeces that can provide insight into the diet and environment of animals millions of years ago.
Copro means ‘dung,’ from the Greek word kopros.
The ending ‘-lite’ is a common ending for fossil or mineral terms, coming from the Greek word lithos, which means stone
The prehistoric faeces becomes hardened over time and can sometime resemble the those of species alive today.
Coprolites do not smell and are filled with mineral deposits like calcium carbonates.
Faeces typically decays quickly and so coprolites are rare to find.
The largest known ancient coprolite came from a T. rex and is known as the ‘Saskatchewan coprolite’ after the location in Canada where it was found.
At over 30cm long, scientists believe the T.rex would have been the only carnivorous beast big enough to produce such a specimen.
Five of the coprolites (26 per cent) – one human and four dog – were found to contain the eggs of parasitic worms.
Researchers said it was the earliest evidence for intestinal parasites in the UK where the host species that produced the faeces has also been identified.
‘This is the first time intestinal parasites have been recovered from Neolithic Britain, and to find them in the environment of Stonehenge is really something,’ said study lead author Dr Piers Mitchell, from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology.
‘The type of parasites we find are compatible with previous evidence for winter feasting on animals during the building of Stonehenge,’ he said.
Four of the coprolites, including the human one, contained the eggs of capillariid worms, identified in part by their lemon shape.
While the many types of capillariid around the world infect a wide range of animals, on the rare occasion that a European species infects humans the eggs get lodged in the liver and do not appear in stool.
The evidence of capillariid eggs in human faeces suggests that the person had eaten the raw or undercooked lungs or liver from an already infected animal, resulting in the parasite’s eggs passing straight through the body.
During excavations of the main ‘midden’ – or dung and refuse heap – at Durrington Walls, archaeologists uncovered pottery and stone tools along with over 38,000 animal bones.
Some 90 per cent of the bones were from pigs, with less than 10 per cent from cows. This is also where the partially mineralised faeces used in the study were found.
‘As capillariid worms can infect cattle and other ruminants, it seems that cows may have been the most likely source of the parasite eggs,’ said Mitchell.
Previous isotopic analyses of cow teeth from Durrington Walls have also suggested that some cattle were herded almost 62 miles (100km) from Devon or Wales to the site for large-scale feasting.
Beef was then chopped for stewing and bone marrow extracted, according to patterns of butchery previously identified on cattle bones from the site.
‘Finding the eggs of capillariid worms in both human and dog coprolites indicates that the people had been eating the internal organs of infected animals, and also fed the leftovers to their dogs,’ said co-author Evilena Anastasiou, who assisted with the research while at Cambridge.
The evidence of capillariid eggs in human faeces suggests that the person had eaten the raw or undercooked lungs or liver from an already infected animal. Raw sweetbreads are pictured
One of the coprolites belonging to a dog contained the eggs of fish tapeworm (pictured), indicating it had previously eaten raw freshwater fish to become infected
To determine whether the coprolites excavated from the midden were from human or animal faeces, they were analysed for sterols and bile acids at the National Environment Isotope Facility at the University of Bristol.
One of the coprolites belonging to a dog contained the eggs of fish tapeworm, indicating it had previously eaten raw freshwater fish to become infected.
However, no other evidence of fish consumption, such as bones, has been found at the site.
‘Durrington Walls was occupied on a largely seasonal basis, mainly in winter periods. The dog probably arrived already infected with the parasite,’ said Dr Mitchell.
‘Isotopic studies of cow bones at the site suggests they came from regions across southern Britain, which was likely also true of the people who lived and worked there.’
The dates for Durrington Walls match those for stage two of the construction of Stonehenge, when the world-famous ‘trilithons’ – two massive vertical stones supporting a third horizontal stone – were erected, most likely by the seasonal residents of this nearby settlement
The dates for Durrington Walls match those for stage two of the construction of Stonehenge, when the world-famous ‘trilithons’ – two massive vertical stones supporting a third horizontal stone – were erected, most likely by the seasonal residents of this nearby settlement.
While Durrington Walls was a place of feasting and habitation, as evidenced by the pottery and vast number of animal bones, Stonehenge itself was not, with little found to suggest people lived or ate there en masse.
Prof Mike Parker Pearson from UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, who excavated Durrington Walls between 2005 and 2007, added: ‘This new evidence tells us something new about the people who came here for winter feasts during the construction of Stonehenge.’
‘Pork and beef were spit-roasted or boiled in clay pots but it looks as if the offal wasn’t always so well cooked.
‘The population weren’t eating freshwater fish at Durrington Walls, so they must have picked up the tapeworms at their home settlements.’
The discovery has been published in the journal Parasitology.
STONEHENGE’S CONSTRUCTION REQUIRED GREAT INGENUITY
Stonehenge was built thousands of years before machinery was invented.
The heavy rocks weigh upwards of several tonnes each.
Some of the stones are believed to have originated from a quarry in Wales, some 140 miles (225km) away from the Wiltshire monument.
To do this would have required a high degree of ingenuity, and experts believe the ancient engineers used a pulley system over a shifting conveyor-belt of logs.
Historians now think that the ring of stones was built in several different stages, with the first completed around 5,000 years ago by Neolithic Britons who used primitive tools, possibly made from deer antlers.
Modern scientists now widely believe that Stonehenge was created by several different tribes over time.
After the Neolithic Britons – likely natives of the British Isles – started the construction, it was continued centuries later by their descendants.
Over time, the descendants developed a more communal way of life and better tools which helped in the erection of the stones.
Bones, tools and other artefacts found on the site seem to support this hypothesis.