Coprolite Analysis in Archeology
Nicole M. Arendt
July 21, 2004.

Coprolite analysis can provide a great deal of information on prehistoric diet and subsistence. This includes both the analysis of macrobotanical and palynological remains, along with possible studies of many other materials. While palynology can contribute to studies of diet, it can also inform on the types of economic and background pollen, seasonality of site occupation, and paleoenvironmental conditions (Bohrer 1981; Bryant 1974a, b; Bryant and Holloway 1983; Hevly 1981; Kelso and Good 1995; Martin and Sharrock 1964; Pearsall 2000; Reinhard and Bryant 1992; Warnock and Reinhard 1992). Kelso has questioned some of the basic assumptions of the interpretations of pollen from coprolites. He suggests that absolute pollen frequencies are more reliable than relative frequencies (Kelso 1976). Also, he determined experimentally that rather than pollen found in coprolites representing pollen ingested in a 24-36 hour period, it actually represents a 5-7 day period. The pollen is also not uniformly distributed and differences in amounts of pollen in different samples do not reflect differences in quantities of pollen ingested at different times (Kelso 1976). However, while he finds environmental and seasonality interpretations to be problematic, he still sees coprolites as being reliable for the study of diet (Kelso 1976).

Once the coprolites are identified as human, which can be problematic, the pollen is extracted using common techniques (Bryant 1974a, b; Clary 1984; Pearsall 2000; Reinhard and Bryant 1992; Warnock and Reinhard 1992). The pollen can be used to reconstruct diet, although macrobotanical remains are probably more reliable, as pollen is often not intentionally consumed as food. Rather, it is more often incidentally consumed, both on food and, often, inhalation (Bohrer 1981). Pollen from latrine soils have also included dietary types, in some cases indicating differences in subsistence relative to differences in social status (Warnock and Reinhard 1992). The pollen represented are potentially environmental and can inform on the plants in the vicinity, including those potentially used economically, although it cannot be used for environmental reconstruction (Bryant 1974a, b; Clary 1984; Kelso 1976). One interesting interpretation of pollen from coprolites is the interpretation of the seasonality of occupation of the site. This assumes that the pollen incidentally consumed would only be able to be consumed during the season when that plant was flowering and, therefore, producing and dispersing pollen (Bryant 1974b; Reinhard and Bryant 1992). However, storage of economic plants could have led to the consumption of their pollen during any season (Williams-Dean and Bryant 1975).

One interesting potential interpretation of pollen from coprolites is pollen that appears to have been directly ingested. This is usually the interpretation for insect-pollinated plants which are less likely to be accidentally consumed through inhalation alone. This could occur through the consumption of flowers as food or transport on fruit or seeds that are consumed, or could be interpreted as a medicinal use of the plant (Bohrer 1981; Bryant 1974a, b; Kelso 1976; Martin and Sharrock 1964; Pearsall 2000; Reinhard and Bryant 1992; Reinhard et al. 1991; Trigg et al. 1994; Williams-Dean and Bryant 1975). There has been some discussion over the level at which the presence of a certain type of pollen is significant (Dean 1993; Reinhard 1993; Reinhard et al. 1991). Pollen concentration and relative frequencies have both been used and convey different information and conclusions, in some cases (Dean 1993; Reinhard 1993). The potential medicinal uses of plants in these studies, as well as other uses, draws heavily on ethnobotanical literature (Bohrer 1981; Reinhard et al. 1991). These sources provide potential uses for the plants found to have been used, although they must be applied carefully.

The analysis of coprolites, therefore, appears to be most useful for the interpretation of diet, including changes in diet (Martin and Sharrock 1964; Reinhard and Bryant 1992). However, environmental factors are also involved, but the degree to which they can be or are interpreted as such varies. They do appear to be a very valuable means of reconstructing diet and the use of plants for food, perhaps more reliable for this purpose than other means used (as it reflects what has been consumed), although the short time period represented by each coprolite, as well as the limitations outlined by Kelso, suggests that there could potentially be gaps in this record. For this reason, coprolite analysis should not be used alone to determine prehistoric subsistence.


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