Insight comes from 20 ancient faecal samples, or “coprolites”, dating to around 2,500 BC unearthed by archaeologists at Durrington Walls, a Neolith
Insight comes from 20 ancient faecal samples, or “coprolites”, dating to around 2,500 BC unearthed by archaeologists at Durrington Walls, a Neolithic settlement just 1.7 miles from Stonehenge. Experts believe that the site was inhabited by the people who constructed the iconic monument’s “trilithons” — pairs of massive stones supporting a third — some 4,500 years ago. Analysis revealed that a quarter of the coprolites, one from a human and four from dogs, contained the eggs of parasitic worms.
Lead archaeologist Dr Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge said: “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 team were even able to identify one species of parasite whose eggs were found in four of the samples, including the human-derived one.
These eggs, which had a characteristic lemon-like shape, were laid by so-called capillariid worms.
Capillariid worms are known to infect a wide range of animals around the world, however, infections of humans by European species is rare — and when it does occur, the eggs tend to get lodged in the liver and thus do not appear in stool.
The fact that capillariid eggs were found in a human faecal sample at Durrington Walls indicates that one of the site’s Neolithic inhabitants must have eaten the raw or undercooked liver or lungs of an already-infected animal.
This would explain how the parasite eggs managed to pass straight through the person’s digestive tract.
Excavations of Durrington Walls’s main “midden” — the primary dung and refuse heap — revealed pottery, stone tools and more than 38,000 animal bones.
Of these, 90 percent were from pigs, and less than 10 percent from cows — and it is with these that the partially mineralised faeces were unearthed.
Dr Mitchell said: “As capillariid worms can infect cattle and other ruminants, it seems that cows may have been the most likely source of the parasite eggs.”
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Previous analyses of cow teeth from Durrington Walls has indicated that cattle were likely herded to the site from Devon and Wales — over a distance of more than 60 miles — to provide food for large-scale feasts.
These feasts would have taken place in the settlement, rather than at the henge itself.
Patterns of butchery on cattle remains from the site suggest that the Neolithic “chefs” primarily chopped up beef for stewing, but also extracted marrow from the bones.
Archaeologist Evilena Anastasiou, formerly of the University of Cambridge, said: “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.”
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One of the canine coprolites, however, contained the eggs of fish tapeworm, which must have come from raw freshwater fish.
No evidence of fish consumption — in the form, for example, of fish bones thrown on the midden — was found at the Durrington Walls.
Dr Mitchell said: “Durrington Walls was occupied on a largely seasonal basis, mainly in winter periods. The dog probably arrived already infected with the parasite.
“Isotopic studies of cow bones at the site suggest they came from regions across southern Britain, which was likely also true of the people who lived and worked there.”
Archaeologist Professor Mike Parker Pearson from University College London excavated Durrington Walls between 2005 and 2007.
He said: “This new evidence tells us something new about the people who came here for winter feasts during the construction of Stonehenge.
“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.”
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Parasitology.