Prehistoric poop reveals what was on the menu at Stonehenge 4,500 years ago

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Ancient Britons at Stonehenge feasted on “offal” and fed the scraps to their dogs, according to new research. Researchers from the University of Cambridge say fossilized poop at the site of a nearby prehistoric village shows ancient humans ate the internal organs of cattle such as the heart, kidney, liver, and tongue — which make up offal.

However, the study also found that the food contained the eggs of tapeworms, revealing the inhabitants were better builders than chefs as the parasites get into your body through undercooked meat. Dogs became infected too after eating the leftovers, but the findings also reveal canines have been “man’s best friend” for millennia. Traces of Alsatians (the German shepherd) have been found near Stonehenge.

It is the earliest evidence for intestinal parasites in the U.K., where the host species that produced the feces has also been identified.

“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,” says lead author Dr. Piers Mitchell in a media release. “The type of parasites we find are compatible with previous evidence for winter feasting on animals during the building of Stonehenge.”

The archaeologists analyzed 19 pieces of feces, or “coprolite,” unearthed at Durrington Walls in Wiltshire and preserved for over 4,500 years. Researchers believe the Stone Age settlement housed the people who erected Stonehenge. It is less than two miles away and dates back to 2,500 BC — the time archaeologists believe humans somehow constructed much of the famous monument.

Where did the parasites come from?

Five of the coprolites – one human and four dog – contained the eggs of parasitic worms. In four, including the human one, they came from a species known as capillariids, identified partly by their peculiar lemon shape. They suggest the person ate the raw or undercooked lungs or liver from an already infected animal — resulting in the parasite’s eggs passing straight through the body.

Human coprolite
Human coprolite (preserved human feces) from Durrington Walls. (Credit: University of Cambridge)

During excavations of the main “midden” – or dung and refuse heap – the team uncovered pottery and stone tools along with over 38,000 animal bones. Some 90 percent were from pigs, with less than 10 percent from cows. This is also where the partially mineralized feces was 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,” Dr. Mitchell says.

Previous analyses of cow teeth from Durrington Walls suggest humans herded some cattle for more than 60 miles, from Devon or Wales for lavish banquets. Patterns of butchery identified on bones indicates beef was mainly chopped for stewing, with ancient cooks extracting the bone marrow.

“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,” explains co-author Dr. Evilena Anastasiou.

Was fish on the prehistoric menu?

To determine whether the coprolites were from human or animal feces, researchers analyzed them for sterols and bile acids at the National Environment Isotope Facility at the University of Bristol. One belonging to a dog contained the eggs of fish tapeworm, indicating it had previously eaten raw freshwater fish to become infected. However, no other evidence of fish consumption, such as bones, has been found at the site.

Microscopic egg of fish tapeworm found in dog coprolite.
Microscopic egg of fish tapeworm found in dog coprolite. Black scale bar represents 20 micrometers. (Credit: University of Cambridge)

“Durrington Walls was occupied on a largely seasonal basis, mainly in winter periods. The dog probably arrived already infected with the parasite,” Dr. Mitchell says. “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. This was when scientists believe the world famous “trilithons” – two massive vertical stones supporting a third horizontal stone – were erected, most likely by the seasonal residents.

New evidence about Stonehenge’s ‘winter feasts’

While Durrington Walls was a place of feasting and habitation, as evidenced by the pottery and vast number of animal bones, Stonehenge itself was not, with little found to suggest people lived or ate there En masse.

“This new evidence tells us something new about the people who came here for winter feasts during the construction of Stonehenge,” adds Professor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London, who excavated 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.”

Stonehenge dates back 5,000 years but archaeologists believe ancients built it in several stages. The unique circle was erected in the late Neolithic, or Stone Age, around 2,500 BC.

The findings are published in the journal Parasitology.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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