Parasite eggs found in 4,500-year-old human faeces suggest the builders of Stonehenge took part in winter feasts that included the internal organs of animals, researchers have revealed.
Stonehenge is thought to have been built around 2,500BC, with evidence suggesting the builders were housed at a settlement known as Durrington Walls, about 2 miles away. The site was predominantly occupied in the winter months, and appears to have been used for between 10 to 50 years.
Experts say they have discovered intestinal parasites in ancient faeces – or coprolites – recovered from the prehistoric rubbish dumps of Durrington Walls, offering new insights into the lives and diet of those who constructed Stonehenge.
The team says the preserved stools are not only the oldest coprolites in Britain to contain parasites, but the earliest evidence for parasite infection in Britain where the species of the hosts are known.
“It is the earliest where we know the origin of the person who went to the toilet,” said Dr Piers Mitchell, of the University of Cambridge, a co-author of the study.
Writing in the journal Parasitology, Mitchell and colleagues report how they found 19 coprolites at Durrington Walls, five of which contained intestinal parasites.
Analysis of substances such as bile acid within the faeces revealed four of these coprolites were from dogs and one from a human, with both the latter and three of the canine specimens containing eggs of a parasitic worm known as a capillaria – these eggs show similarities to those of a species that infects cattle today.
The team says the discovery suggests the builders of Stonehenge, and their dogs, ate undercooked offal from infected cattle.
Mitchell said: “It shows that they were eating the internal organs of the cattle, especially their liver, because that’s where these parasites lived. It wasn’t just that they were scraping the meat off the bone and then chucking the rest away.
“It looks like they were sort of sharing their food with their companion animals, or at least giving them the leftovers.”
The other canine coprolite was found to contain the eggs of fish tapeworm, suggesting the animal had eaten raw or undercooked freshwater fish. Mitchell said it seemed likely the dog was already infected when it arrived at Durrington Walls, given the site was only occupied for brief periods at a time and it takes some months after infection before a fish tapeworm starts to produce eggs. In addition, neither bones nor evidence of oil from freshwater fish have been found at the settlement.
The team notes that previous discoveries of pig and cattle bones at Durrington Walls suggested its inhabitants held meaty winter feasts.
“[There is also] early evidence for milk and cheese and those kinds of fascinating things,” said Mitchell, adding that previous work suggested the builders brought their animals with them when they travelled to Stonehenge.
But, he said, it was unclear if the feasts were rare and special occasions, or whether the villagers chipped away at their supply of meat every night.
Mike Pitts, an archaeologist who was not involved in the study, said the finds were exciting. “So little [information from the time] survives, so any new window you can open on to that past is hugely valuable,” he said.
Pitts added that the results appeared to challenge previous studies that emphasised pigs as a source of meat for the Stonehenge builders, and that no fish was consumed. Nevertheless, he suggested the explanation could be that Durrington Walls was a busy, complex place where people with different customs had come together for the great build.
Ultimately, he said, it was important to consider all types of finds. “Any one type of evidence is not going to give you the full story,” he said.