Researchers have found that parasite eggs found in 4,500-year-old human feces suggest that Stonehenge builders were involved in winter feasts that involved the internal organs of animals.
Stonehenge is believed to have been built around 2500 BC, and evidence shows that the builders were housed in a settlement known as Durington Walls, about 2 miles away. The plot was predominantly occupied during the winter months and seems to have been used for 10 to 50 years.
Experts say they have found intestinal parasites in ancient feces – or caprollites – found from prehistoric landfills in the Durinton Wall, offering a new insight into the lives and diets of those who built Stonehenge.
The team says the surviving feces are not only the oldest coprolites in Britain that contain parasites, but also the earliest evidence of parasite infestation in Britain, where host species are known.
“This is the earliest place where we know the origin of the person who went to the toilet,” said Dr. Pierce Mitchell of Cambridge University, co-author of the study.
Writing in the journal Parasitology, Mitchell and his colleagues report how they found 19 coprolites in Durington Walls, five of which contained intestinal parasites.
Analysis of substances such as bile acid in the feces showed that four of these coprolites were from dogs and one from humans, with both the last and three canine specimens containing eggs of a parasitic worm known as capillaries – these eggs have similarities to those species which now infects cattle.
The team says the discovery suggests that the builders of Stonehenge and their dogs ate insufficiently processed offal from infected cattle.
Mitchell said: “This shows that they ate the internal organs of cattle, especially their livers, because that is where these parasites lived. It wasn’t just that they scraped the meat off the bones and then threw away the rest.
“It looks like they shared food with their companion animals or at least gave them leftovers.”
Fish tapeworm eggs were found in another canine corporal, indicating that the animal was eating raw or undercooked freshwater fish. Mitchell said it appears the dog was already infected when it arrived in Durrington Walls, given that the site was only occupied for a short time, and after infection it takes several months before the fish tapeworm starts producing eggs. In addition, no bones or signs of freshwater fish oil were found in the settlement.
The team notes that previous discoveries of pig bones and cattle at Durington Walls suggested that its residents were arranging meat winter feasts.
«[There is also] early evidence of milk and cheese and similar interesting things, ”Mitchell said, adding that previous work suggested that the builders took their animals with them when they traveled to Stonehenge.
But, he said, it is unclear whether the holidays were rare and special occasions, or whether villagers cut their meat supplies every night.
Mike Pitts, an archaeologist who was not involved in the study, said the findings were fascinating. “So little [information from the time] survives, so any new window you can open into this past is very valuable, ”he said.
Pitts added that the results appear to contradict previous studies that highlighted pigs as a source of meat for Stonehenge builders, and that the fish was not eaten. However, he suggested that the explanation may be that Durington Walls was a busy and challenging place where people with different customs came together for great construction.
Ultimately, he said, it is important to consider all types of finds. “Any one type of evidence will not give you a complete story,” he said.