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Study: Ancient humans at Stonehenge feasted on animal organs

Leftovers were given to dogs which became infected too, but it also reveals our favorite pet has been man's best friend for millennia.

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A panoramic shot of Stonehenge.
(Toasted Pictures via Shutterstock)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Ancient Britons at Stonehenge feasted on offal -  the organs of butchered animals- and fed the scraps to dogs, according to new research.

Fossilized poo dug up at the site of a nearby prehistoric village shows they ate the internal organs of cattle such as the heart, kidney, liver and tongue.

It contained the eggs of tapeworms - revealing the inhabitants were better builders than chefs as the parasites get into your body from eating undercooked meat.

Leftovers were given to dogs which became infected too, but it also reveals our favorite pet has been man's best friend for millennia. Traces of Alsatians have been found near Stonehenge.

It is the earliest evidence for intestinal parasites in the UK where the host species that produced the feces has also been identified.

Lead author Dr. Piers Mitchell, of the University of Cambridge, said: "This is the first time intestinal parasites have been recovered from Neolithic Britain, and to find them in the environment of Stonehenge is really something.

"The type of parasites we find are compatible with previous evidence for winter feasting on animals during the building of Stonehenge."

The archaeologists analyzed 19 pieces of dung, or coprolite, unearthed at Durrington Walls in Wiltshire and preserved for over 4,500 years.

The Stone Age settlement is believed to have housed the people who erected Stonehenge.

via GIPHY

It is less than two miles away and dates from around 2,500BC - when much of the famous monument was constructed.

Five of the coprolites - one human and four dog - were found to contain the eggs of parasitic worms.

In four, including the human one, they came from a species known as capillariids, identified partly by their peculiar lemon shape.

They suggest the person had eaten the raw or undercooked lungs or liver from an already infected animal - resulting in the parasite's eggs passing straight through the body.

During excavations of the main 'midden' - or dung and refuse heap - the team uncovered pottery and stone tools - along with over 38,000 animal bones.

Some 90 percent were from pigs - with less than 10 percent from cows. This is also where the partially mineralized feces were found.

Mitchell said: "As capillariid worms can infect cattle and other ruminants, it seems that cows may have been the most likely source of the parasite eggs."

Previous analyses of cow teeth from Durrington Walls suggest some cattle were herded more than 60 miles from Devon or Wales for lavish banquets.

Patterns of butchery identified on bones indicates beef was mainly chopped for stewing, and bone marrow was extracted.

Co-author Dr. Evilena Anastasiou, also from Cambridge, said: "Finding the eggs of capillariid worms in both human and dog coprolites indicates the people had been eating the internal organs of infected animals, and also fed the leftovers to their dogs,”

To determine whether the coprolites were from human or animal feces, they were analyzed for sterols and bile acids at the National Environment Isotope Facility at the University of Bristol.

One belonging to a dog contained the eggs of fish tapeworm, indicating it had previously eaten raw freshwater fish to become infected. However, no other evidence of fish consumption, such as bones, has been found at the site.

Mitchell said: "Durrington Walls was occupied on a largely seasonal basis, mainly in winter periods. The dog probably arrived already infected with the parasite.

"Isotopic studies of cow bones at the site suggests they came from regions across southern Britain, which was likely also true of the people who lived and worked there."

The dates for Durrington Walls match those for stage two of the construction of Stonehenge.

This was when the world famous 'trilithons' - two massive vertical stones supporting a third horizontal stone - were erected, most likely by the seasonal residents.

While Durrington Walls was a place of feasting and habitation, as evidenced by the pottery and vast number of animal bones, Stonehenge itself was not, with little found to suggest people lived or ate there en masse.

Prof Mike Parker Pearson, of University College London, who excavated Durrington Walls between 2005 and 2007, added: "This new evidence tells us something new about the people who came here for winter feasts during the construction of Stonehenge.

"Pork and beef were spit-roasted or boiled in clay pots but it looks as if the offal wasn't always so well cooked.

"The population weren't eating freshwater fish at Durrington Walls, so they must have picked up the tapeworms at their home settlements."

Stonehenge dates back 5,000 years, but was built in several stages. The unique circle was erected in the late Neolithic, or Stone Age, about 2,500BC.

The findings are in the journal Parasitology.

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