excrement archeology faeces

Faecal Frolics

Can excrement be exciting?

On one of our walks my little daughter learned an important lesson: you can step on stones, logs, and even empty beer cans, but not on fresh cowpats. Animal faeces from different species differ from one another in form, colour, consistency and smell and are often shaped according to the hind-gut passage they have been released from.

Horse dung looks like brown apples and contains grass fibres and bits of hay, demonstrating a less than perfect digestive process. Rabbit faeces resemble nuts (and to my horror were even mistaken for some by a son of mine when he was little) and contain much finer plant remains, chiefly because rabbits eat their own faeces to allow them to be digested for a second or even third time… The crummy bits of fox droppings (and the rarely seen cat-poo) usually contain fragments of animal fur, bone splinters and tiny teeth. Bird droppings are often white, because of the uric acid mixed into them. It pays to be knowledgeable in faecal matters when visiting Central and South American caves: tarlike excrement on the grotto wall or cave floor indicates the presence of vampire bats – and what they feed on I need not explain.

Faeces can have signal value and brown bears love to smear their solid wastes onto tree trunks, serving as territorial markers. The hippopotamus simplifies the job by using its stiff little tail like a propeller to distribute a shower of faecal spray onto the surrounding vegetation.
If zoologists find excrement interesting, archaeologists just love them. Why? Fossil faeces, first of all, are less smelly than the fresh product, but more importantly coprolite analysts can actually tell from faecal material what prehistoric people ate.

Faecal archaeologists isolated bone fragments, charcoal, hair and other debris from the excrements of Neanderthal man and found bits of marine shell, sand grains, a few animal hairs and egg shell pieces in 400,000 year old faces from France. Culinary culture does, indeed, go back a long way in France! Human faeces only a few thousand years ago from North America contained squash and sunflower seeds, hickory nut shells, acorns, antelope hairs, bird feathers, insect fragments and pieces of shell.

Remains of lice and ticks (eaten by prehistoric man during grooming) and tap- and pinworm eggs, were also clearly recognizable. Diet changes during the period of plant domestication, too, manifested themselves in the faeces. I find all this so interesting: the next time excrement experts meet to discuss their observations on animal droppings, I think I’ll drop in to learn a little more about this important subject.

Dung beetle story australia entomology insect

For more reading about this smelly subject, click here for ” A dirty job”

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2016.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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