Discovering the first Americans' bathroom

This fossilized shit is the best evidence that humans were living in North America 14,000 years ago, a millennium before the Clovis people, long thought to be the first Americans. Researchers from the University of Oregon studied the coprolites, found the crap in a cave in Oregon's Cascade Range. After the discovery, scientists at the University of Copenhagen's Center for Ancient Genetics analyzed DNA retrieved from the fossilized feces. The research was published today in the journal Science. From the New York Times:
 Images 2008 04 03 Science 04Fossil.Large Few artifacts were found at the cave, the discovery team reported, which suggested that the occupants’ visits were brief...

The researchers reported that 14 coprolites from the cave sediments were identified as being from humans. The laboratory studies showed that six samples had genetic signatures associated with American Indians and not shared by other groups.
Link (Thanks, Robert Pescovitz!)


  1. Hmm.. coprolites, huh? I’m going to have to throw that one out in normal, day to day conversation. It presents a world of possibilities.

  2. Interesting stuff!
    Though, in keeping with the thread so far…

    I always read or hear the word “coprolites” and imagine them being some rank of soldier similar to hoplites.

    “Sir! We have bested the hoplites!”
    “Indeed, Publius! But yet we must face our worst foes yet – the coprolites!”
    *gasp* “Sir! Let us rally the troops at once!”

  3. This is silly. Humans were only invented about 6,000 years ago. Any “ancient” crap that you find in a cave was indisputably “placed” there by God in order to test the faithful.

    That said, in order to selflessly help future generations and archaeologist understand life in the 21st Century, I will now pledge to crap only outdoors in dry, protected areas from now on.

  4. Is it actually possible:

    A) for crap to fossilize in as little as 14,000 years?

    B) to extract DNA from the minerals that replace organic matter during the fossilization process?

    Maybe someone with more knowledge can chime in with answers, but I think that the use of the term “fossilized” throughout the article is just crappy journalism.

  5. @ #10

    “I wonder why they crapped inside.”

    I wondered about that as well Mitch. Even if they didn’t know about the relationship between crap and disease, you would have thought crapping in your living space would be a no-no (unless it was going to be wheeked away by a flush)

    Maybe it was the Scat Cave :)

  6. This is a fascinating story but I am wondering how does one know what fossilized shit looks like? To me it would just look like a clump of mud – especially after 14,000 years.

    Ooops, gotta go. I need to clean up some canine coprolites in my backyard.

  7. These are dried, not fossilized. Apparently the caves are extremely dry. If you wet the material it stinks.

    Also, “first” these people probably aren’t.

    Figure it this way. Let’s say people started coming to the Americas 50,000 years ago. Population growth curves tend to be exponential, which means pretty flat at the beginning and then swooping up faster as time goes on. So we can be pretty sure there were very, very few people in the Americas for the first 30,000 years or so. Also, only a tiny fraction of any evidence will happen to get preserved, and that will tend to be from relatively recent times rather than more ancient ones.

    On this basis the odds of the earliest evidence we happen to have being anywhere close to the first people are pretty much nil. Expect in future to see reports of evidence of human occupation that dates much earlier than this.

    This is a big problem in all areas of paleontology, and it means that those nicely reconstructed trees of life for dinosaurs and whatnot should all be taken with a very large grain of probablistic salt.

  8. The NYT missed the most interesting part of this discovery. The published paper went on to note:

    “The coprolites were found in a far corner of the cave site, collected together beneath a horizontally-positioned, oval-shaped rock formation with a large hole in its center that appeared to have been worn smooth, possibly by human interaction, though determination of the cause of the wear was beyond the scope of this research project. This horizontally-positioned oval-shaped formation with the hole in its center was connected at its base to a similarly shaped, vertically-positioned rock formation that had no hole. It appears that at one time the vertically-positioned formation could have pivoted at its connecting point to cover the opening of the horizontally-positioned formation. However, after thousands of years of resting in the vertical position, the covering rock formation could not be moved and appears to be permanently ‘up.'”

  9. The end of the article that I just read (lost the link) explained that the samples were considered fossils because they were found buried. They were not petrified, which is the process of minerals replacing organic material.
    Personally, I have mine bronzed for posterity.

  10. Slackfiendish..I think the term “fossilization” is one of the most elastic terms in common use. It’s come to mean any kind of really old stuff…inlcuding people (that’s me and you soon enough). The technical term is even in a state of transformation. At one time it implied mineralization but evidently not any longer..too bad as imprecise use of language is one of the major obstacles to our full understanding of what science has to say on so many topics. So, I advise that one consider the misuse of the term as nothing more than a speed bump and instead focus on the content of the find, which is pretty spectacular. These are exciting times for those of us who still dream in the pleistocene and hold our academically entrenched ideas of the past in less than high regard. Beware of shifting paradigms regarding our planets natural history.

  11. It’s because of Terry Pratchett that I can now remember what coprolite is. It was one of those bits of trivia that would occasionally float by but until it became an insult in the Discworld universe I kept forgetting it.

  12. I think it should be pointed out that the poop merely contained human dna but also human hair fragments and canine dna.

    So really what we may be looking at is poop from dogs that eat humans, not necessarily humans themselves pooping.

  13. Here’s Wikipedia’s topic sentence for fossil:

    Fossils (from Latin fossus, literally “having been dug up”) are the mineralized or otherwise preserved remains or traces (such as footprints) of animals, plants, and other organisms.

  14. “which suggested that the occupants’ visits were brief…”

    Well, of course they were.

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