Ancient poop tells a story of food and ritual in the Chihuahuan Desert

A snake sits coiled in the grass.

An example of Crotalus atrox, aka western diamondback
rattlesnake. (credit:

Sometime around 450 CE in the Chihuahuan Desert, one brave soul
ate a whole rattlesnake raw. If you think that takes guts, imagine
passing an 11mm (0.43 inch) fang afterward. The desiccated
coprolite—archaeologists’ term for ancient poop—contained the
scales and bones of the snake along with remnants of a small rodent
and an assortment of edible desert plants. It’s a great example
of how coprolites can give archaeologist a direct (sometimes
unnervingly direct) look at what ancient people ate.

The dry desert climate preserves things we don’t always think
about. When archaeologists first excavated the layers of sediment
in Conejo Shelter, a rock shelter high on the wall of a canyon in
Texas’ Lower Pecos Valley, they found nearly 1,000 coprolites
buried in a corner near the entrance, which looks like it served as
an ancient latrine. Those coprolites provide a valuable record of
what ancient indigenous people living in the area ate.

The people who lived at Conejo Shelter were only
there seasonally, foraging in the challenging environment of the
desert. Their routes through the area would have depended on water
sources: the three rivers that meet in the Lower Pecos, along with
scattered natural springs and rainwater that collected in
reservoirs in the bedrock. They would have eaten desert rodents,
rabbits, fish, lizards, and perhaps a very rare deer now and then,
along with desert plants like yucca, wild onion, and agave, which
they baked in earth ovens. And at least once, someone ate a whole
rattlesnake without bothering to skin or cook it first.

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Source: FS – All – Science – News
Ancient poop tells a story of food and ritual in the Chihuahuan Desert