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4500-year-old poo found near Stonehenge shows that neolithic Britons were infected with parasites after feasting on ox liver ©Getty Images
©Getty Images

4,500-year-old poo found near Stonehenge shows Neolithic Britons were infected with parasites

Published: 20th May, 2022 at 00:00
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The parasites were also present in dog poo found at the site, suggesting that prehistoric humans fed leftovers to their pet pups.

Ancient faeces found at Durrington Walls, a Neolithic settlement close to Stonehenge, contains the eggs of parasitic worms, researchers at the University of Cambridge and UCL have found.

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The settlement dates back to around 2,500BC and it believed to have been home to the people who erected the famous monument.

Archaeologists analysed 19 pieces of ancient faeces, or coprolites, from the site that have been preserved in a mass dung heap for 4,500 years. Five of them, one from humans and four from dogs, were found to contain the eggs of capillariid worms – a parasitical worm that lodges in the lungs or liver of its host.

The finding suggests that the Neolithic humans were eating undercooked offal and feeding the leftovers to their dogs, the researchers say.

Microscopic egg of a capillariid worm found at the site. Black scale bar represents 20 micrometres © Evilena Anastasiou
Microscopic egg of a capillariid worm found at the site. Black scale bar represents 20 micrometres © Evilena Anastasiou

“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.”

When excavating the dung heap, archaeologists unearthed fragments of pottery, rudimentary stone tools and more than 38,000 animal bones.

Although 90 per cent of the bones were from pigs, the most likely source of the parasite is cows as capillariid worms typically infect ruminants, the researchers say.

The team analysed 19 coprolites found at the site © Lisa-Marie Shillito
The team analysed 19 coprolites found at the site © Lisa-Marie Shillito

Archaeological evidence suggests that Durrington Walls was occupied during the second stage of the construction of Stonehenge, when the iconic ‘trilithons’ – a pair of huge vertical stones topped by a third horizontal stone – were erected. The seasonal residents of Durrington Walls are thought to have carried out the work.

“This new evidence tells us something new about the people who came here for winter feasts during the construction of Stonehenge," said Prof Mike Parker Pearson from UCL’s Institute of Archaeology.

“Pork and beef were spit-roasted or boiled in clay pots but it looks as if the offal wasn’t always so well cooked.”

Read more about ancient humans:

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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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