A 1,500-year-old chunk of fossilized human poop found at a former rock shelter in Texas contains evidence of an ancient hunter-gatherer who consumed an entire rattlesnake — including a fang. Archaeologists have never seen anything quite like it.
Back in the late 1960s, archaeologists collected over 1,000 samples of human-produced coprolites, or dried-out poop, at the Conejo Shelter site in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of southwest Texas. A team led by archaeologist Elanor Sonderman from Texas A&M University recently took a new look at this old poop, leading to a rather remarkable discovery.
One of the recovered poop samples contained various traces of vegetation, and even a whole small rodent that was seemingly eaten without cooking. For hunter-gatherers of the Lower Pecos, that’s actually nothing out of the ordinary. But the same coprolite sample also contained traces of an entire rattlesnake, including bits of bones, scales, and even a fang.
The authors of the new study believe it to be the first evidence of whole-snake consumption in the fossil record. As the researchers point out in the new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, this unique — and potentially life-threatening — gestational act was likely done for ceremonial or ritualistic reasons, and not for the nutrition.
The Lower Pecos region of Texas was first inhabited by humans about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. The Conejo Shelter is located near the junction of the Rio Grande and Pecos rivers, and it served as a safe space for indigenous hunter-gatherers during the region’s Archaic period.
Archaeologists conducted excavations at this site from 1967 to 1968, pulling out over 1,000 human coprolites, among other artifacts and fossils. The quantity of coprolites found at a specific area of the rock shelter suggests the space was designated as a latrine. Fossilised poop samples may sound off-putting, but they allow scientists to reconstruct the diets of ancient peoples.
A second coprolite found within the same stratigraphic layer as the one with the snake fang was carbon dated to between 1,529 to 1,597 years ago, so roughly 1,000 years before the arrival of Europeans to the New World.
According to the researchers, the pre-Columbian hunter-gatherers who lived in the Lower Pecos region had to deal with relatively harsh desert conditions, foraging on small animals such as rodents (including rabbits), fish, reptiles, and anything else they could find.
Large prey, such as deer, were relatively rare. Vegetation played an important role in the lives of the Lower Pecos peoples, which they used for food, medicine, and to produce items such as sandals, baskets, and mats. This culture is also known for its elaborate and extensive rock art, which frequently depicted snakes.
The coprolite sample containing evidence of whole-snake consumption was placed in storage back in the late 1970s. Sonderman, along with colleagues Crystal Dozier from Wichita State University and Morgan Smith from Texas A&M University, have been re-analysing the various items excavated during the prior digs at Conejo Shelter.
For the most part, this particular poop sample was much like other human coprolites found at the site. This particular individual consumed a wide variety of plants having both nutritional and medicinal value. Sonderman’s team found traces of Agave lechuguilla and Liliaceae, of which the flowers were typically eaten.
The fossilised poop also contained evidence of Dasylirion fibres, related to the asparagus family, and Opuntia, a cactus more commonly known as the prickly pear. These plants were likely eaten in the spring or early summer.
The remains of a small rodent were also found in the poop sample, “evidently eaten whole, with no indication of preparation or cooking,” wrote the authors in the new study. This is not unusual, as bits of fur and bones are often found in Lower Pecos human coprolites dating back to this time period.
As for the whole snake, however, that came as a surprise. The researchers said it was a viperous, venomous snake, either a western diamondback rattlesnake or copperhead rattlesnake.
To be clear, evidence of snake consumption is common in the archaeological record, as the authors of the new study pointed out. The Tepehuan people of Northeastern Mexico, for example, ate rattlesnakes for food, but only after removing the head, rattle, and skin (including scales) prior to cooking. Same for the Ute people of modern-day Utah and Colorado, who skinned and roasted snakes over coals.
The presence of scales, bones, a one-centimeter-long fang, and the venomous head in the coprolite sample is exceptionally unusual, said the authors, suggesting something other than sustenance, perhaps some sort of ritual, was the reason for the meal. What’s more, given the other food items in the poop, it’s not immediately obvious that this individual was starving or otherwise desperate for food.
Moreover, and as the authors wrote in the new study, snakes held important symbolic status for people living in this region. Snakes were “considered to hold power to act upon certain elements of the earth,” the authors wrote, and because “of their power and role in various mythologies, many cultures around the world include snakes as a feature of ceremonies and rituals.”
The final paragraph of the new paper summarises their interpretation of the findings quite nicely:
The recovery of Viper skeleton remains from a human coprolite is remarkable, not only because of the rarity of such an occurrence but also because this find provides a glimpse of the ritualistic behaviours of small-scale societies. We propose that the ingestion of an entire venomous snake is not typical behaviour for the occupants of the Lower Pecos or Conejo Shelter. It is also clear from [comparative cultural analyses] and rock art from this region that snakes hold ritual significance to the indigenous populations of the Lower Pecos. We propose that a likely explanation for the ingestion of an entire snake is that the individual did so for a distinctly ceremonial or ritualistic purpose.
A potential concern with this coprolite analysis is that the owner of the poop never actually consumed the mouse or snake, and that this individual’s faecal matter became intermixed with surrounding material, such as fur and bones. We asked Sonderman about this possibility, but she said it’s highly unlikely.
“When food matter is digested and waste is produced the waste is made up of broken down digesta and indigestible materials,” explained Sonderman in an email to Gizmodo. “The indigestible materials include some fibrous portions of plants, fur, bones, and the like. The indigestible materials in the coprolite were coated in faecal matter.
Based on the archaeological context it is possible that large portions of plant materials might have adhered to the coprolite soon after deposition but these exterior materials were removed from the coprolite before analysis. The fang was inside the coprolite. Not hanging around on it.”
That the coprolite was a mixture of multiple defecations from more than one person was also ruled out.
“The coprolite was clearly defined and relatively easily separated from those in the vicinity,” said Sonderman. “Since this was from a latrine context we assume it would be uncommon for two individuals to defecate in the same hole at the same time.”
With these issues addressed, however, a major and rather obvious limitation of this study is the lone sample. It’s possible that the snake was eaten by a particularly eccentric or curious individual, and that it never happened again. Further evidence of whole-snake consumption among the Lower Pecos people would add further evidence to the claim that this was something done regularly, or at least on special occasions.
The good news is that plenty of coprolites were uncovered at Conejo Shelter. Perhaps a future discovery is waiting inside one or more of these ancient chunks of dried-out poop.