Hidden Secrets of Poop Fossils

  • By Anna Rothschild
  • Posted 08.06.15
  • NOVA

Fossilized poop, called coprolites, can reveal surprising secrets about the past. Find out more in this episode of Gross Science

Running Time: 02:49


Hidden Secrets of Poop Fossils

Posted: August 6, 2015

What if, thousands of years from now, all that was left of you…was your poop?

I’m Anna Rothschild, and this is Gross Science.

Every poop is a nugget of information. Poop records what we eat, where we live, even how we died. So when archaeologists find the fossilized poop of ancient humans, they get kind of excited.

These poop fossils are called coprolites, and they’re pretty rare. Although we make a lot of them, feces are tough to preserve.

But there are a few ways poop manages to stick around for posterity. It can dry out—in caves or in a mummy’s desiccated intestines. Particularly impressive poops can leave dents in the earth that get filled in—creating a cast and mold of the ancient bowel movement. And a turd can also turn to stone, when minerals in water slowly permeate and replace the molecules in the turd.

Whatever else was in the poop gets mineralized as well. Take this nearly 8-inch, 1000-year-old Viking monstrosity discovered in England. The poor Viking who created this treasure was infested with tons of intestinal parasites like whipworms, which were preserved along with the giant poo, illustrating just how squalid everyday life was back then. And this guy wasn’t an anomaly—archaeologists have also found cesspits (essentially Viking sewers) that were filled with parasite eggs.

Poop can also tell us who was living where. In Puerto Rico, the contents of 1-2 millennia-old coprolites backed up the archaeological evidence that native populations on the island at the time were two distinct cultural groups, with different diets, and different parasites.

Fossilized turds can even shed light on ancient murder mysteries. In Medieval Verona, the warlord Cangrande della Scala—patron of the poet Dante Alighieri—died at the age of 38 after a severe bout of vomiting and diarrhea. Rumors of foul-play spread, though at the time no one could prove it. But nearly 700 years later, researchers dug up the body and analyzed the feces that were preserved in the corpse’s rectum. They found out that he had ingested a poisonous plant before he died. And from the chamomile and mulberry pollen preserved in the poop as well, the researchers surmised that he drank a poisoned tea that killed him.

So the next time you grab your newspaper and head to the bathroom, think about it not so much as going number 2, but as contributing to the archaeological record.




Host, Producer
Anna Rothschild
Writer, Animator, Editor, DP, Sound
Rachel Becker
Many thanks to Dr. Dennis Jenkins, Dr. Karen Chin, Dr. Hendrik Poinar, Dr. Andrew Knoll, and Dr. Ainara Sistiaga.
Menu Ouvrier
Music Provided by APM


Lloydsbankcoprolite 001
Wikimedia Commons/ Linda Spashett Storye book
Stone texture 11
Cangrande1 (mummy)
Wikimedia Commons/Gino Fornaciairi
Wikimedia Commons/Frn Brz
spetti di vita quotidiana, vomito,Taccuino Sanitatis (Vomiting man)
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Matricaria recutita (chamomile)
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Morus alba Blanco1 (mulberry)
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain


(used with permission from author)
Squeak Pack/squeak_10
Groaning gurgle
SoundsExciting/Public Domain
Short Fart_01
DSISStudios/Public Domain
Anagar/Public Domain
Billox30/Public Domain
Additional adorable sound effects
Rachel Becker
Produced by WGBH for PBS Digital Studios


(main image: Illustration of Poop Fossil)
©WGBH Educational Foundation 2015


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