Date of this Version
Published in Archaeological Method and Theory: An Encyclopedia, ed. Linda Ellis (Garland, 2000), pp. 124–132.
Although archaeological fieldwork is hot and dirty, the most “earthy” side of the discipline is the laboratory analysis of coprolites. Each coprolite contains the remains of one to several actual meals eaten in prehistory, and analysis of many coprolites provides a picture of ancient diet that is unique in accuracy.
The term coprolite originally referred to fossilized feces in paleontological context. In archaeology, the term broadened to refer to any formed fecal mass, including mineralized, desiccated, or frozen feces and even the intestinal contents of mummies. Coprolites contain the remains of animals (parasites) that lived in the humans, the foods that humans ate, and the remains of animals that lived in the feces after defecation. The majority of recognizable remains consist of undigested or partly digested food residue. With the naked eye, one can identify plant cuticle, bark, seeds, fruit coats, fibers, animal bone, feathers, lizard and fish scales, mollusc shell, crustacean fragments, fish otoliths, insects, and other food items. Microscopic remains include parasites, pollen grains, phytoliths, other small plant structures, animal hair, fungal spores, diatoms, mites, and starch granules. In short, anything indigestible that people swallowed can be found. Beyond visual identification, chemical components of coprolites include proteins, lipids, steroids, carbon and nitrogen isotopes, and many major and trace elements.
The analytical techniques developed by Callen, Bryant, and Reinhard, combined with the statistical techniques of Minnis and Sutton, have proven to be particularly powerful for reconstruction of ancient cuisine, diet, and health. The future of coprolite research will see more such statistical evaluation of coprolite information.