Scientists working on an archeological dig in Oregon contend they’ve found the fat in the crap of the ancients, and it shows humans were roaming North America before those now known as the first people arrived.
“Human occupation at Paisley Caves (Oregon) is now proven to 12,200 C years before present (BP) (about 14,400 calendar years) using fecal lipid biomarkers,” they reported at Science Advances last month.
“Coprolites 194 and 280 are the oldest coprolites determined to be unequivocally human based on fecal biomarker analysis, a methodology that bypasses current uncertainties surrounding mtDNA.”
A coprolite is a fossilized turd or, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it, “fossilized excrement.”
Over time, the excrement dries out; any organisms that might have been living in it die, and it becomes almost rock-like. You can today buy a nice set of cut and polished dinosaur-dung bookends weighing about 4 pounds each on Ebay for $350.
But chemicals left in the excrement when it passed through an animal remain in the fossil and can be analyzed.
The researchers from Newcastle University, the University of Bristol and the University of Oregon, went looking for Paisley poop because of a debate about the age of the human DNA found there.
“DNA has been shown to be mobile in sediments in a range of environments and is also relatively easy to degrade,” they noted.
“Because of the contentious nature of the first Americans debate and the uncertainties surrounding potential contamination, the (DNA) findings from the coprolites from Paisley Caves have been the subject of criticism.”
The issue is contentious because of the theft of the continent by Europeans who began arriving on its eastern shore in the 16th Century and steadily marched west until they occupied and controlled a land once divided among hundreds of American Indian tribes.
The progeny of those Europeans have sometimes since been asked to atone for the sins of their ancestors now portrayed as looters and murders or worse. Some see that view softening somewhat if the idea spreads that there were others here who lost the continent to those who became the American Indians.
“Many questions still remain over who the earliest settlers were, when they arrived, and what route they took,” the coprolite crew wrote. “(Their) Western Stemmed Tradition is the oldest nonfluted lithic technology in the American Far West. Sites like Coopers Ferry, Idaho and Paisley Caves…provide evidence that WST technology predates Clovis, establishing this as the oldest well-defined technological tradition in North America, with links to late Pleistocene sites in East Asia and Siberia.”
Archeologists are still working to sort out the history of the Western Stemmed Tradition in North America. As the lastest study noted, Paisley Caves is “the only site where a pre-Clovis WST assemblage has been found in direct association with well-preserved organic cultural material, enabling us to better understand these early settlers and their way of life.”
Among the things people leave behind when they live almost anywhere is their crap, the scientists noted, and it contains lipids specific to humans. Over time, it becomes locked in sediment where it remains stable.
Flagging the humans
When the researchers studied 18 coprolites previously tagged as containing human DNA, they said, they found 10 they interpreted as human in origin, six that appeared to been dumped by carnivores, and a “remaining coprolite…most likely of mixed (human/carnivore) origin.”
The study did not offer an explanation of how human DNA would end up in the crap of carnivores, but the most likely explanation would be that said carnivores were feeding on humans or scavenging human bodies.
Life in the past was not as easy as people enjoy it today. North America was not an idyllic Eden; it was more a dangerous jungle where only the fittest survived.
Estimates of the aboriginal population on the continent north of Mexico at the time Christopher Columbus stumbled into the continent have ranged from 1.8 million to 18 million, according to the National Museum of the American Indian.
Archeologists of the future will find much easier pickings given that the more people there are the more coprolite they leave behind. The biggest problem trying to sort out the prehistory of the continent now is that there were so few people thousands of years ago, and they left so little behind.