DNA analysis of mummified poop reveals pre-Columbian Caribbean diet

A recent study published on October 11, 2023, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, conducted by Jelissa Reynoso-García and her colleagues from the University of Puerto Rico, delved into the dietary habits of two pre-Columbian Caribbean cultures, the Huecoid and Saladoid, using an unusual source: mummified feces, or coprolites.

Coprolites provide valuable insights into ancient diets and lifestyles. Reynoso-García and her team meticulously analyzed plant DNA extracted from ten coprolite samples found at the La Hueca archaeological site in Puerto Rico. By comparing this plant DNA to a comprehensive database of coprolite samples and contemporary plant DNA sequences, they uncovered a fascinating glimpse into the culinary choices of these ancient peoples.

The findings were remarkable. The Huecoid and Saladoid communities enjoyed a diverse and sophisticated food system, incorporating a wide array of plants such as sweet potatoes, both wild and domesticated peanuts, chili peppers, domesticated tomatoes, papaya, and maize. Surprisingly, tobacco traces were also found, suggesting its use for chewing, inhalation, or even as a food additive for medicinal or hallucinogenic purposes. Additionally, cotton was detected, possibly due to its use for extracting oil or because women moistened cotton strands with their saliva while weaving.

Notably absent in the analysis was cassava (Manihot esculenta), a plant often reported as a staple food in the pre-Columbian Caribbean. The authors speculate that the elaborate cassava preparation methods described in historical accounts might have degraded the plant DNA, or that it could have been a seasonal dietary choice.

While the study sheds light on the dietary habits of these ancient cultures, it is essential to acknowledge that coprolite samples provide only a snapshot of an individual’s recent diet. Furthermore, the limitations of identifying only plants present in current DNA sequence databases mean that some now-extinct, rare, or non-commercial crops might have been missed. Nonetheless, this research offers valuable insights into the lives of pre-Columbian people in the Americas, reminding us that even the most unlikely sources can hold significant historical information.

Dr. Toranzos aptly noted, “Who would have thought that something we avoid looking at could contain such rich information, even after thousands of years?”

Source: Public Library of Science

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