A snake sits coiled in the grass.

An example of Crotalus atrox, aka western diamondback rattlesnake. (credit: Wikipedia)

Sometime around 450 CE in the Chihuahuan Desert, one brave soul ate a whole rattlesnake raw. If you think that takes guts, imagine passing an 11mm (0.43 inch) fang afterward. The desiccated coprolite—archaeologists’ term for ancient poop—contained the scales and bones of the snake along with remnants of a small rodent and an assortment of edible desert plants. It’s a great example of how coprolites can give archaeologist a direct (sometimes unnervingly direct) look at what ancient people ate.

The dry desert climate preserves things we don’t always think about. When archaeologists first excavated the layers of sediment in Conejo Shelter, a rock shelter high on the wall of a canyon in Texas’ Lower Pecos Valley, they found nearly 1,000 coprolites buried in a corner near the entrance, which looks like it served as an ancient latrine. Those coprolites provide a valuable record of what ancient indigenous people living in the area ate.

The people who lived at Conejo Shelter were only there seasonally, foraging in the challenging environment of the desert. Their routes through the area would have depended on water sources: the three rivers that meet in the Lower Pecos, along with scattered natural springs and rainwater that collected in reservoirs in the bedrock. They would have eaten desert rodents, rabbits, fish, lizards, and perhaps a very rare deer now and then, along with desert plants like yucca, wild onion, and agave, which they baked in earth ovens. And at least once, someone ate a whole rattlesnake without bothering to skin or cook it first.

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