Stonehenge: People who built the monument may have eaten raw cattle organs

Human coprolite (preserved human faeces) from Durrington Walls.

Human fossilised faeces from Durrington Walls, England

Lisa-Marie Shillito

The people who built Stonehenge probably ate cattle organs and shared leftovers with dogs, according to an analysis of parasites trapped in ancient faeces.

Roughly 4500-year-old fossilised excrement was discovered several years ago at Durrington Walls, a Neolithic settlement in England thought to house the builders of Stonehenge. Previous research suggests the village held a few thousand residents travelled to the location seasonally to erect the stone pillars.

Piers Mitchell at the University of Cambridge and his team analysed 19 faecal fossils, determining that some were from humans and some from dogs. They examined the faeces under a microscope where they saw the eggs of a type of parasite called a capillariid worm, which they could identify from its lemon-like shape. This led them to conclude that the sample came from someone who had eaten raw organs of an infected bovine.

“We know they must have been eating internal organs such as the liver, where this parasite would normally live, and they were also feeding it to their dogs, because the dogs had the same kind of parasite,” says Mitchell.

The villagers probably ingested the eggs after not cooking a cow very thoroughly. The thought of eating cattle organs might not sound appetizing today, but Michell says, “there’s no reason to think that they would have thought steaks are nice and internal organs aren’t.”

One excrement sample from a dog contained eggs from a freshwater fish tapeworm, which Mitchell says is an especially intriguing find because fish were not a common dietary staple at the settlement. He suspects the raw fish was transported from a far-away village for a feast at Stonehenge then consumed by the dog.

“[The results] show a really interesting way that humans were living with their companion animals thousands of years ago – they were still treating their dogs as one of the family even back then,” says Mitchell. “It’s given us this wonderful window of evidence that we didn’t have before.”

Journal reference: Parasitology, DOI: 10.1017/S0031182022000476

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