An analysis of an ancient human coprolite (a fancy word for human feces) found that whoever dropped trow 1,500 years ago likely ate a rattlesnake whole – and lived to poop about it later.
The fossilized poo was first discovered in the late 1960s at an archaeological excavation of a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos region of Texas named Conejo Shelter. For the last 12,000 to 14,000 years, humans have occupied the shelter and the presence of their poo proves it. Archaeologists at the time recovered around 1,000 presumed human coprolites from just this one shelter, indicating it was probably once used as a latrine. Flash-forward to present day, when researchers at Texas A&M University reanalyzed the coprolite samples.
Writing in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the team notes that they found evidence of agave and prickly pear cactuses, as well as other plants known for economic and medicinal purposes. They also discovered the remains of a small rodent eaten whole with no indication that it was cooked – but that’s not even the weirdest bit yet. Found in the coprolite were some of the bones, scales, and an intact fang believed to belong to either a western diamondback or copperhead, two of the most venomous snakes in North America.
"Because our sample size is one – we can’t know for sure if this coprolite represents a pattern, a ritual, or just a fluke. Humans are weird and hard to predict [and] understand sometimes. This is the first evidence of its kind we have found but we don’t want to overstate any conclusions without more research," said lead researcher Elanor Sonderman to IFLScience.
Though snakes may not be on most of our lunch menus, a number of studies suggest that people in this region ate rattlesnakes, particularly during times of stress, and would remove the head, rattle, and skin before they cooked the creature. That begs the question: Why would someone eat a rattlesnake whole? Ritual, of course.
“Snakes hold important symbolic status within the region, as in many areas of the world, and the consumption of a venomous snake in the manner indicated in this coprolite (eaten whole, with no preparation), reflects ritualistic consumption behavior among the foraging peoples of the lower Pecos,” wrote the authors.
Many cultures believe snakes hold power over certain elements of the Earth, and mythologies and cultures around the world include the slithering reptiles in ceremonies and rituals. The Hopi hold a snake dance every year to ensure water availability and a successful harvest. Here, celebrators collect snakes and give them to a snake priest who then holds them in his mouth, imploring the snakes to deliver messages to the spirits for water. The Aztecs also revered snakes as water-related spirits.
"Ritual is often one of the hardest things to figure out in archaeology. We can often determine the what, but the why can be tricky. We know that various rituals in this area of the world involve the use of psychoactive substances, such as peyote and datura, to achieve supernatural communication," said Sonderman. "We also know that rock shelters similar to Conejo Shelter had important meaning to indigenous people there due to the prevalence of rock art and cave paintings in the region."
Sonderman notes that some altered states create certain visual experiences that transcend cultural backgrounds, resulting in the visual experience of zigzag or undulating lines often interpreted as snakes or serpents by the person hallucinating.