Combined visual and biochemical analyses confirm depositor and diet for Neolithic coprolites from Skara Brae

Andrzej Romaniuk, Elsa Panciroli, Michael Buckley, Manasij Pal Chowdhury, Carla Willars, Jeremy S Herman, Lore Troalen, Alexandra N. Shepherd, David V. Clarke, Alison Sheridan, Bart E. van Dongen, Ian Butler, Robin Bendrey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Coprolites (fossilized faeces) can provide valuable insights into species’ diet and related habits. In archaeozoological contexts, they are a potential source of information on human-animal interactions as well as human and animal subsistence. However, despite a broad discussion on coprolites in archaeology, such finds are rarely subject to detailed examination by researchers, perhaps due to the destructive nature of traditional analytical methods. Here, we have examined coprolitic remains from the Neolithic (third millennium BCE) settlement at Skara Brae, Orkney, using a range of modern methods: X-ray computed tomography, scanning electron microscopy, lipid and protein analysis (shotgun proteomics of the coprolite matrix as well as collagen peptide mass fingerprinting of isolated bone fragments). This combined approach minimised destructiveness of sampling, leaving sufficient material for subsequent study, while providing more information than traditional morphological examination alone. Based on gross visual examination, coprolites were predominantly attributed to domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), with morphologically identified bone inclusions derived from domestic sheep (Ovis aries) and common voles (Microtus arvalis). Partial dissection of a coprolite provided bone samples containing protein markers akin to those of domestic sheep. Considering the predominance of vertebral and distal limb bone fragments, Skara Brae dogs were probably consuming human butchery or meal refuse, either routinely fed to them or scavenged. The presumably opportunistic consumption of rodents may also have played a role in pest control.
Original languageEnglish
Article number274
JournalArchaeological and Anthropological Sciences
Issue number2
Early online date10 Nov 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Nov 2020


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