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Scientists Reveal Diet Secrets of People Who Built Stonehenge

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A study led by researchers from the University of Cambridge provides new evidence to confirm that people who built Stonehenge feasted on cattle’s internal organs and served leftovers to their dogs.

The eggs of parasitic worms were discovered in ancient feces excavated at the site of a prehistoric town near Stonehenge, suggesting the occupants feasted on cattle internal organs and served leftovers to their dogs.

Durrington Walls was a Neolithic hamlet located about 2.8 kilometers from Stonehenge, dating from around 2500 BC, when the famed stone monument was being built. The people who built Stonehenge are said to have lived on the site.

Nineteen fragments of ancient excrement, or ‘coprolite,’ unearthed at Durrington Walls and preserved for over 4,500 years were analyzed by a team of archaeologists led by the University of Cambridge. The eggs of parasitic worms were discovered in five of the coprolites (26 percent) – one human and four dogs.

It is the first proof of intestinal parasites in the UK, according to researchers, and the host species that produced the feces has also been identified. The results were published in the journal Parasitology today.

According to the study lead author Dr Piers Mitchell, “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.”

The eggs of capillariid worms were found in four of the coprolites, including the human ones. They were identified in part by their lemon shape.

While capillariids infect a wide range of animals around the world, when a European species infects humans, the eggs become lodged in the liver and do not appear in the stool.

Capillariid eggs seen in human feces indicate that the person consumed raw or undercooked lungs or liver from an already infected animal, allowing the parasite’s eggs to travel straight through the body.

Archaeologists discovered ceramics and stone tools, as well as over 38,000 animal bones, during excavations of the main’midden’ – or dung and refuse mound – at Durrington Walls. Pig bones made up 90 percent of the bones, with cow bones accounting for less than 10 percent. The partially mineralized excrement used in the study were also discovered here.

“As capillariid worms can infect cattle and other ruminants, it seems that cows may have been the most likely source of the parasite eggs,” adds Mitchell.

According to previous isotopic analysis of cow molars from Durrington Walls, some cattle were transported nearly 100 kilometers from Devon or Wales to the site for large-scale feasting. Butchery patterns previously observed on cattle bones from the site indicate that beef was predominantly cut for stewing and bone marrow was removed.

“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,” says co-author Evilena Anastasiou.

The National Environment Isotope Facility at the University of Bristol tested the coprolites unearthed from the midden for sterols and bile acids to identify whether they were from human or animal feces.

One of the coprolites from a dog had fish tapeworm eggs, indicating that it had been infected after eating raw freshwater fish. However, no further evidence of fish consumption has been discovered at the location, such as bones.

“Durrington Walls was occupied on a largely seasonal basis, mainly in winter periods. The dog probably arrived already infected with the parasite,” adds 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 correspond to the second stage of Stonehenge’s construction, when the world-famous ‘trilithons’ — two gigantic vertical stones supporting a third horizontal stone – were placed, most likely by seasonal residents of this adjacent settlement.

While the pottery and large number of animal bones at Durrington Walls indicate that it was a place of feasting and dwelling, there is scant indication that people lived or ate in mass at Stonehenge.

“This new evidence tells us something new about the people who came here for winter feasts during the construction of Stonehenge,” says Prof Mike Parker Pearson of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, who investigated Durrington Walls between 2005 and 2007.

“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.”

Image Credit: Getty

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