Ancient poop contains clues about feasts eaten at construction of Stonehenge more than 4,500 years ago

Business Insider US
An illustration of prehistoric people cooking in Durrington Walls (left) seen next to a parasite egg (right) found in preserved feces found near the site.
  • Scientists analysed the faeces of humans who are thought to have built Stonehenge. 
  • It was found in a nearby settlement where workers marked the construction with lavish parties.
  • The finding gives clues about what happened during those celebrations, scientists told Insider.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

Prehistoric poop from 4,500 years ago has provided new clues about the ritual celebrations that took place during the construction of Stonehenge, scientists say.

Researchers analysed coprolites — partially fossilised faeces — left by humans at the Durrington Walls settlement, where humans are thought to have stayed during the construction of the massive stone monument in southern England.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Parasitology on Friday, was the first to show that the workers ate raw animal — internal organs — during lavish ceremonial feasts that took place to mark the construction of Stonehenge.

People celebrating the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge on June 21, 2021

Durrington Walls: Stonehenge's prehistoric party town

Archeologists think that Durrington Walls site, found about 2.7 kilometres from Stonehenge, was the centre for ritual celebrations that took place during the construction of the stone circle in 2,500 B.C.

The Durrington Walls archaeological site is about 1.7 miles from Stonehenge.

Evidence suggests that for a period of 10 to 50 years neolithic humans came from all corners of England during the winter months to help build the stone monument.

"They didn't seem to live there continuously. They lived in southern Britain, they farmed their crops in the summer. And then they came to Durrington walls in the winter to not only put Stonehenge together but also to hold religious festivals there," study lead author Piers Mitchell from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology told Insider.

The settlement was made up of hundreds of wood and chalk houses surrounded by three huge ceremonial structures out of wood pillars.

"To anybody at that time, Durrington Walls would've looked more impressive than Stonehenge," Michael Parker-Pearson, a lead archaeologist on the Durrington Walls excavation site and an author of the study, told Insider. "It would've looked spectacular"  

An illustration shows the wooden structure seen at Durrington walls around 2500 BC.

These massive gatherings were marked by lavish feasts. Pigs and cows were roasted on spits over roaring fires. 

Evidence suggests pigs were shot with arrows instead of being butchered. This could mean there were sporting games, demonstrations of strength or coming-of-age ceremonies there, said Susan Greaney an English heritage archaeologist who works on Stonehenge and wasn't involved in the study.

The food was so plentiful that bones were discarded onto rubbish heaps with meat still attached and leftovers were given to dogs to eat, Parker-Pearson said

"This is a sort of meat fest extravaganza," he said. "It's a sort of party-based consumer site, which is obviously a massive magnet for people to come from many, many miles away."

An illustration of Durrington Walls circa 2500 BC

Uncovering the menu

"Until we did this study, no one had any idea if they were eating offal or not," Mitchell said. 

Evidence of culinary practices from prehistoric times is rare. Food tends to disintegrate over time, but parasite eggs can provide vital clues into the lifestyle of humans who left no written records. 

Five of the coprolites, one of which was found to be human and the rest from dogs, contained the eggs of parasitic worms. 

Human coprolite (preserved human faeces) from Durrington Walls.

The parasites that were in the human faeces would have come from the raw organs of infected animals, Mitchell said.

"We knew that they were eating pigs and cattle, so it's not surprising that they were eating every part of the animal," Greaney said. "But it's the first time we've got evidence for that," she said.

Scientists spotted these parasite eggs in the prehistoric feces found at Durrington Walls. The black bar represent 20 micrometers.

The dog poop also had traces of freshwater fish parasites. This could be evidence that the dog travelled from an area of England where there were lakes.

This was also unexpected because archaeologists believe eating fish was taboo around this time, maybe because people put their cremated dead into rivers, Greaney said. 

"It's a bit of a leap to go from like one dog eating one fish to saying that people were fishing," she said. "But it does raise interesting questions about that."

Get the best of our site emailed to you every weekday.

Go to the Business Insider front page for more stories.

Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo