Chaw joins poop in archaeology arsenal

2 minute read

Well, archaeology is set to receive a once-in-a-generation influx of interest from teenagers drawn to the allure of the past. I mean, from the new Indiana Jones movie, of course.

So what do they have to go and do? Discover a real life crystal skull? Sorry, kids. If you want to be an archaeologist, it's all bodily functions from here on out.

Tom Dillehay and colleagues (2008) report in this week's Science that they have found chewed-on seaweed "cud" from Monte Verde, dated to 14,000 calendar years BP. And that paper is right next to the final publication of the Paisley Caves coprolites from Oregon, also dating to slightly before 14,000 calendar years BP.

Both papers are pretty cool -- together they emphasize that these kinds of forensic evidence are becoming increasingly important in documenting the activities (and existence) of archaeological populations. After all, a person has to poop thousands of times during his life, but he has only one skeleton.

Dillehay and colleagues interpret their seaweeds as a specialized medicinal collection, based on the presence of non-edible species and species present at different times of the year. Here's a quote from Michael Balter's news piece on the find:

Back 14,000 years ago, Monte Verde was located about 90 kilometers east of the sandy Pacific coast and 15 kilometers north of a rocky-shored inland marine bay. Algae from both environments were recovered, including inedible species that are today used as medicines in Chile and elsewhere. Moreover, the algal species found are known to flourish at different times of the year, suggesting to Dillehay's team that the Monte Verdeans were intimately familiar with coastal resources--possibly because they had originally arrived in the region via that route. Erlandson agrees: "The variety of seaweeds implies a pretty deep knowledge of coastal ecosystems and a long history of exploiting them."

Well, that's pretty impressive, even if the seaweed were chewed up. And hey, my kids are much more interested in bodily functions than they are in crystal skulls. So maybe this will bring in new archaeologists after all!


Balter M. 2008. Ancient algae suggest sea route for first Americans. Science 320:729. doi:10.1126/science.320.5877.729

Dillehay TD, Ramírez C, Pino M, Collins MB, Rossen J, Pino-Navarro JD. 2008. Monte Verde: Seaweed, food, medicine, and the peopling of South America. Science 320:784-786. doi:10.1126/science.1156533

Gilbert MTP and 12 others. DNA from pre-Clovis human coprolites in Oregon, North America. Science 320:786-789. doi:10.1126/science.1154116