The Archaeological Value of Old Poo

13 Jul

Some of you know how much I love to talk about coprolites, otherwise known as paleofeces (literally, “old poo”).  Coprolites, preserved animal or human feces, are one line of direct evidence that reveals what people of the past ate.  They are of great scientific and comedic value; rarely does something so funny (on a middle school level) have such serious scholarly implications.  In this case, it could change our understanding of how and when people migrated to the Americas.

A new Science article published this week details the analysis of ancient human coprolites from Paisley Caves, Oregon.  Most importantly, these coprolites were associated with Western Stemmed projectile points at the site.  Since paleofeces are organic, it is possible to determine their age with radiocarbon dating and infer the age of associated artifacts.  Western Stemmed points, and how they relate to Clovis technology, may rewrite the peopling of the New World.  The study’s authors conclude:

“These two distinct technologies were parallel developments, not the product of a unilinear technological evolution. “Blind testing” analysis of coprolites by an independent laboratory confirms the presence of human DNA in specimens of pre-Clovis age. The colonization of the Americas involved multiple technologically divergent, and possibly genetically divergent, founding groups” (Jenkins et al. 2012).

Check out this link for a funny description of how feces becomes fossilized, then ponder the fact that dried-out old turds are helping scholars answer the biggest questions of American archaeology.

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