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Constipation takes a new twist



Ancient faeces have pushed back the date when people first lived in America

A GOOD doctor can tell a lot from a stool sample, but Dr Thomas Gilbert can tell more than many. Indeed, he thinks he can tell when a continent was first populated, and by whom, for the stools he is examining were produced by some of North America's earliest inhabitants.
Dr Gilbert, who works at Copenhagen University, in Denmark, is one of the leaders of a team that has just published its findings in Science. The team had examined 14 coprolites, as fossil faeces are termed by polite scientists. These coprolites came from a complex of caves in Oregon. Radiocarbon dating showed some of them to be more than 14,000 years old. And they appeared to be human.

The reason that excites researchers is that it helps to push back the date when humanity arrived in the Americas. Traditionalists have long believed that the first Americans belonged to what is known as the Clovis culture, after a style of arrowhead found first at Clovis, New Mexico, but which has turned up at several other locations. Clovis sites are 13,000 years old at most. However, a lone non-Clovis site in Chile seems to be to 14,600 years old. That suggests the “Clovis first” theory is wrong. But without supporting evidence, some Clovistas have been reluctant to concede.
Dr Gilbert and his colleagues have, it seems, provided that evidence. Their data support the idea that there were people in America before Clovis. They also suggest that at least some of those people were the ancestors of modern Amerindians. That is because the Oregonian coprolites contain DNA that has characteristics which match that of living Amerindians.
This suggests in turn that the people who produced those coprolites were not related to Kennewick man, a skeleton found some years ago in neighbouring Washington State. Kennewick man is a mystery because, although ancient (he is dated to 9,300 years ago), he does not look like a modern Amerindian. Rather, he looks Caucasian, so it is unlikely his DNA would resemble a modern Amerindian's.
A few sceptics have suggested that the coprolites are actually dog faeces, and the DNA is subsequent contamination. That is just about possible, but even if it did turn out to be true, they do contain human hair. That means that whichever animal they emerged from, people must have been around at the time. Clovis Man, it seems, was a Johnny-come-lately after all.

The first Americans | Number one and number twos | Economist.com