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Coprolite

The Archaeological Study of Human Fossil Feces called Coprolite

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Coprolite from Paisley Cave (Oregon)

Human coprolite from Paisley Cave 5 radiocarbon dated to 12,300 BC.

Image courtesy of Dennis LeRoy Jenkins

In archaeological terms, a coprolite is the name given to fossil feces, preserved human excrement discovered in an archaeological context. Coprolites are of an extremely important analytical interest to archaeologists, believe it or not, because they contain evidence of diet and subsistence, disease and pathogens, gender and DNA, evidence in a manner not readily available elsewhere.

Archaeology of the Coprolite

The most important proponent of research into coprolites was Eric O. Callen, a maverick who died doing research at Pikimachay, Peru in 1970. Callen, with a PhD in botany from Edinburgh, worked as a plant pathologist at McGill University. He began his first coprolite studies at the behest of archaeologist Junius Bird, who had discovered coprolites at the site of Huaca Prieta de Chicama. Callen was restricted to macroscopic studies of the remains, but he invented techniques for the study at a time when he was disparaged for what was considered a bizarre research.

Since Callen's death, coprolite studies have included the investigations of chemical, immunological protein, steroids (which determine sex), and DNA studies, in addition to phytoliths, pollen, parasites, algae, and viruses.

Sources

In 2008, archaeologists discovered fossilized coprolites in Paisley Caves, a possible pre-clovis site in Oregon.

Bryant, Vaughn M. and Glenna W. Dean 2006 Archaeological coprolite science: The legacy of Eric O. Callen (1912–1970). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 237(1):51-66.

Gilbert et al. 2008. DNA from Pre-Clovis Human Coprolites in Oregon, North America. Science 320(5877): 786-789

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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