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Whole rattlesnake found in human-produced coprolites.

Whole Rattlesnake Including Fangs Found Inside Lump of Fossilized Human Poo

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Rattlesnake fangs are known to deliver hemotoxic venom which destroys human tissue causing disrupted blood clotting (necrosis and coagulopathy). But scientists have found one encased inside a human-produced coprolite - or a fossilized human poop .

The Discovery of the Fossilized Coprolite

A somewhat shocking, if not gut-wrenching report published in the Journal of Archaeological Science releases information about the work of archaeologist Elanor Sonderman from Texas A&M University, who discovered locked into a lump of “1,500-year-old fossilized human poop” an entire rattlesnake - including a fang, with the venom channel still clearly visible.

The sample was originally collected from the Conejo Shelter site in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of southwest Texas which was first inhabited by hunter-gatherers about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. Excavations in the late 1960s recovered over 1,000 samples of what are known as “human-produced coprolites” or, time-dried poop. One of these samples containing mixed vegetation was found to be not only laced with the remains of a small rodent, (that was consumed whole and raw!) but also traces of an entire rattlesnake.

The sample of fossilized coprolite was discovered in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of southwest Texas. (Natuur12 / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The sample of fossilized coprolite was discovered in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of southwest Texas. (Natuur12 / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The researchers said it was a “viperous, venomous snake , either a western diamondback rattlesnake or copperhead” and the one-centimeter-long fang and venomous head were all there. But why on earth would anyone consume a whole snake with fangs and all? Isn’t this a potentially life-threatening thing to do?

Ah! It’s Those Ancient Hunting Rituals Again

The pre-Columbian hunter-gatherers who lived in the Lower Pecos region dealt with harsh desert living conditions foraging rodents, fish, and small reptiles. According to an article in Gizmodo, the incredible and revealing fossilized poop also contained “evidence of Dasylirion fibers which is a plant related to the asparagus family, and Opuntia, a cactus more commonly known as the prickly pear.”

Alternatively to consuming snakes whole, the Tepehuan people of Northeastern Mexico also ate rattlesnakes, but for food. They first removed the head, then, off came the rattle and skin before cooking. But nowhere has evidence of whole snake consumption been found before.

The fossilized coprolite sample prior to analysis. (Sonderman / Texas A&M University)

The fossilized coprolite sample prior to analysis. ( Sonderman / Texas A&M University)

The scientists wrote that snakes were believed to influence “ elements of the earth ,” and because “of their power and role in various mythologies,” many ancient cultures around the world have snakes as parts of their ceremonies and rituals. This is why the archaeologists believe the man likely ate the snake under ritualistic or ceremonial conditions.

The scientists talked about the ritual aspects of the discovery in the closing chapter of their paper when they said, “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.”

History of the Study of Fossilized Poo

An article published in ThoughtCo discusses the history of the study of human coprolites and gives the title of the most important proponent and influencer in the field to Eric O. Callen, the Scottish botanist who pioneered plant pathologies at McGill University in the early 1950s.

In 1951, archaeologist Junius Bird discovered coprolites in the intestines of a mummy at Huaca Prieta de Chicama in Peru, which Callen studied for traces of fungi that infect and destroy  maize. While he didn’t find any, his work washed away all that had come before, and this maverick set all standards in the modern field of coprolite research. So much so that the American archaeologists, Bryant and Dean, in their article recounting Callan's importance to the microhistology, state how remarkable it is “that this very first study of ancient human coprolites was conducted by two scholars with no formal training in anthropology.”

The rattlesnake fang found in the fossilized coprolite, or fossilized poop. The venom channel is clearly visible. (Sonderman / Texas A&M University)

The rattlesnake fang found in the fossilized coprolite, or fossilized poop. The venom channel is clearly visible. ( Sonderman / Texas A&M University)

So often in history the passions of outsiders have disrupted and upgraded entire scientific disciplines, and in this case Callan was the non-anthropologist that ‘threw poop against the academic fan’, at least coprolites.

Top image: Whole rattlesnake found in human-produced coprolites. Source: Steve Byland / Adobe .

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

How are they certain it was human poop? Maybe it was from another animal.

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