A study of ancient feces discovered at a settlement thought to have housed the builders of the famous stone monument suggests that parasites were consumed during epic winter feasts via poorly cooked cow offal. A new analysis of ancient feces discovered at the site of a prehistoric village near Stonehenge has revealed evidence of parasitic worm eggs, implying that the inhabitants feasted on cattle internal organs and fed leftovers to their dogs.
Durrington Walls was a Neolithic settlement located just 2.8 kilometers from Stonehenge that dates back to around 2500 BC, when much of the famous stone monument was built. It is thought that the people who built Stonehenge lived on the site.
A team of archaeologists led by the University of Cambridge investigated nineteen pieces of ancient feces, or ‘coprolite,’ discovered at Durrington Walls and preserved for over 4,500 years. Five of the coprolites (26%) — one human and four dogs — were found to contain parasitic worm eggs.
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. The type of parasites we find are compatible with previous evidence for winter feasting on animals during the building of Stonehenge.Dr. Piers Mitchell
According to the researchers, this is the first evidence for intestinal parasites in the UK, and the host species that produced the feces has also been identified. The findings were published today in the journal Parasitology.
“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 capillariid worm eggs, which were identified in part by their lemon shape. While many capillariid species infect a wide variety of animals around the world, when a European species infects humans, the eggs become lodged in the liver and do not appear in stool.
Capillariid eggs in human feces indicate that the person consumed raw or undercooked lungs or liver from an infected animal, resulting in the parasite’s eggs passing directly 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% of the bones were from pigs, with less than 10% 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 indicate that some cattle were herded nearly 100 kilometers from Devon or Wales to the site for mass feasting. Previous butchery patterns found on cattle bones from the site indicate that beef was primarily chopped for stewing and bone marrow was extracted.
“Finding capillariid worm eggs in both human and dog coprolites suggests that people were eating infected animals’ internal organs and feeding the leftovers to their dogs,” said co-author Evilena Anastasiou, who assisted with the research while at Cambridge.
To determine whether the coprolites excavated from the midden were from human or animal feces, they were tested for sterols and bile acids at the University of Bristol’s National Environment Isotope Facility.
One of the coprolites from a dog contained fish tapeworm eggs, indicating that it had previously eaten raw freshwater fish to become infected. However, no other signs of fish consumption, such as bones, were discovered 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 Piers 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.
While Durrington Walls was a feasting and habitation site, as evidenced by the pottery and large number of animal bones, Stonehenge was not. There was little evidence that people lived or ate there in large numbers.
Prof Mike Parker Pearson of the University of London’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 Stonehenge’s construction.”
“Pork and beef were spit-roasted or boiled in clay pots, but it appears that offal was not always cooked to perfection. Because the population was not eating freshwater fish at Durrington Walls, the tapeworms must have been picked up at their home settlements.”