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Remains of snake found in fossilized human excrement

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A 1,500 year old fossilized human excrement discovered in Texas has revealed the remains of a rattlesnake.  According to archaeologists the snake has clearly be eaten in its entirety. Details of the study were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science : Reports

At the end of the 1960 s a team of archaeologists collected more than 1,000 samples of fossilized excrement from the Conejo Shelter site in the South-West of Texas. The quantity of human waste found in this sheltered site suggests that this area was specifically used as ancient latrine. Elanor Sonderman, of Texas A & M University, recently decided to take another look at these samples. And one of them particularly caught her attention.

A ceremonial act

One of the analysed samples revealed the remains of a rattlesnake, including fragments of the snakes skull, scales and even its fang. Eating snakes is common in archaeological archives, especially in the region.  However, hunters ate snakes only after removing the head, skin and scales before cooking.  In this instance the snake, which is believed to be either a western diamondback rattlesnake or a copperhead rattlesnake, was eaten whole without being cooked beforehand.  This unusual situation was probably, according to the researchers, a ceremonial act.

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The fang of the discovered rattlesnake. The venomous canal is also clearly visible. Credits: EM Sonderman et al., 2019

It is exceptionally unusual to find scales, bones, a centimeter long fang and a venomous head in  human excrement.  During the period, snakes had an important symbolic status for the region’s inhabitants.  What is more, the rest of the analysed excrement sample show researchers that the individual has a good diet as wouldn’t have been starving.

The individual appeared to have eaten a large variety of plants with both nutritional and medicinal values.  Traces of Lechuguilla and Liliaceae agave were found as well as traces of Dasylirion fibers belonging to the asparagus family. Opuntia a species of cactus was also found in the excrement.  Researchers note that these plants were probably consumed in spring or at the start of summer.  There are also traces of avery small rodent that was apparently eaten raw.  However this discovery is not unusual for the hunter-gatherer community living in this region at the time.

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