The Origin of Poop: AI to Predict Source of Ancient Feces
Archaeologists have applied the principals of AI to distinguish between ancient human and dog poo, cleaning up a storm of scientific confusion over the matter.
Looking deep into the future, in October 2019 Elon Musk posted a tweet using Starlink, a satellite constellation of thousands of orbiting mirrors constructed by his American company SpaceX, to provide satellite Internet access everywhere in the world. What’s more, Amazon continue to apply advanced AI programs to predict what you and I might buy next; but looking backwards in time, archaeologists have now use artificial intelligence to distinguish whether a sample of ancient poo has human or canine origins.
In a New Scientist article, Maxime Borry of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany discusses his new paper, which says ancient poo, or “coprolites”, provides a valuable source of information about the identity, diet, and health of people who lived thousands of years ago. But the researcher explained that dogs lived alongside ancient hunters and canine feces are also commonly found at archaeological sites, “It is challenging to tell them apart,” said Dr. Borry.
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Separating Ancient Human Feces From That of Their Four-Legged Best Friends
Coprolites (also known as a coproliths) are fossilized feces that can provide information on an animal's behavior and diet. They were first described by William Buckland in 1829, but discovered by fossil hunter Mary Anning in 1824, when she recorded finding “bezoar stones” in the abdominal region of ichthyosaur skeletons found in the Lias formation at Lyme Regis.
Finger ring with a bezoar stone, 17th century. (Public Domain)
Ranging from a few millimeters to over 60 centimeters (23.62 inches) in length, ancient poo is found in archaeological contexts, and today, these time-entombed droppings are of great importance to paleontology because they provide direct evidence of the predation (preying or hunting habit) and diet of extinct organisms.
The team of researchers essentially devised an innovate new method of sequencing the DNA of ancient stools that enabled the identification of their origins. But this science is fraught with variables, for example, hungry dogs ate the droppings of other animals, including humans, therefore dog feces often contains human DNA.
Complicating this, according to Dr. Borry, ancient human feces also contains dog DNA because eating dogs was “long commonplace in many communities all over the world.” To get over this complication, Dr. Borry had to first conceptualize, then design, a way of accessing ancient data trapped within the deeper microcosmic dimensions of coprolites. This led him to consider microbial life in the guts of humans and animals, which vary greatly from species to species.
Artificial Intelligence Queries Ancient Poo
Here’s the AI techy bit: CoproID is a machine learning system built on a rich database of human and canine microbiomes. Firstly, modern stool samples were tested to verify the system’s accuracy and then the new method was applied to 20 coprolite samples from known archaeological sites, along with seven test samples of common soil, which the system quickly classified as “uncertain” - verifying its efficiency.
Fossil coprolite from the Whitemud Formation in Saskatchewan, Canada. (CC0)
According to an article on New Scientist, until these breakthroughs uniting artificial intelligence with the latest techniques of DNA sequencing, researchers had been restricted to the old method of testing ancient poo samples, which was based on the analysis of internal parasites. This was the case for seven samples - which scientists had only every been able to determine were “either” dog or human - the new electronic mind of CoproID clearly identified them all as canine.
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Studying Dog DNA Illustrates the Diets of Ancient Mexican Child Sacrifice Rituals
Three further coprolites had come from the Cueva de los Muertos Chiquitos, (“the cave of the dead children”) in the Rio Zape Valley, just north of Durango in Mexico, a site of human sacrifice between 660 and 1430 AD. In scholar John J. Crandall’s 2012 paper “Sacrifice at La Cueva de Los Muertos Chiquitos” he wrote how large quantities of food and imported jewelry were ritually offered, noting the presence of botanicals used for drug production and how a ritual sacrifice “precipitated the deaths of up to 25 infants and children.”
Pot-bellied Dog Figure, Mexico, State of Colima, 200 BC - 500 AD, ceramic, Pre-Columbian collection in the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. (Public Domain)
Now, while samples of these people’s stools have all been found to contain human-like microbiomes, they have “much more dog DNA than human,” suggesting they had been excreted by people who had recently feasted on dogs, which further illustrates the ritual diets of ancient Mexico. It also highlights the centrality of dogs not only in this life, but in the other.
Top Image: Scientists are using AI to distinguish between ancient poo left by prehistoric humans and dogs. Source: Wallpaper Flare
By Ashley Cowie