Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Prehistoric Pooping!

Sean D. says:
Here's an interesting exchange I had concerning ancient poo recycling With Dr. Dennis L. Jenkins, the Senior Staff Archaeologist/Archaeological Field School Director of the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Dear Dr. Jenkins,
Not knowing much about the behavior of our Homo sapien ancestors, such
as it might have been, 14,300 years ago, in what's now Oregon, I'm
curious about the placement of the coprolites you've uncovered. It
seems as if, if these caves were used for shelter, cooking, etc., that
it might have been a good idea to excrete elsewhere. I'm assuming it's
potentially hard to speculate, but based on your expertise, do you
think it's possible that certain caves were used as latrines at
certain times? Or perhaps just once or twice? I can imagine that these
individuals might not have been super-fastidious, but it seems like
small measures like the separation of food and feces might have been
survival mechanism-style behaviors.
Yours sincerely,
Sean D

Hi Sean,
People tend to defecate in particular areas of a cave (alcoves, cracks in boulders, pits in floors, etc.) or just outside it. They are more or less storing waste material that could potentially provide an emergency food source that might mean the difference between life and death. Seeds which have not been entirely digested can be retrieved, cleaned and consumed again, believe it or not. This has been termed the 2nd harvest by the Seri, I believe. Hope this helps.

Thanks so much for your reply. It's incredibly helpful information, and connects some dots for me. It makes perfect sense. I hadn't thought of "the second harvest," but I've read about such things in a sometimes questionable book called The Scatologic rites of All Nations by John G. Bourke, specifically concerning the Indians of "Lower California" and cactus seeds. I've also noticed the practice of seed retrieval from goat dung to make Argan oil in Morocco, and not least the Philippine, Palm Civet-digested Kopi Luwak coffee beans, which are so value-added that they fetch steep prices. I'm definitely sympathetic to the view that modern humans share more predilections and habits with our ancient ancestors than we may realize, which is why certain parts of regional continuity seem to ring true, not least the idea that Homo sapiens interbred successfully with those they encountered as they traveled.
Thanks again,
Sean D

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