An ancient person ate a whole rattlesnake. Why?

Black-tailed rattlesnake. (Credit: Greg Schechter/Flickr)

Researchers have discovered evidence in fossilized feces that an ancient Native American ate an entire rattlesnake about 1,500 years ago.

The team examined coprolites—the scientific name for fossilized human fecal material—which an earlier researcher discovered in the 1960s during the construction of the Amistad Dam in far west Texas. Researchers believe the coprolites originated in the Conejo Shelter, an area widely known as where early settlers of the time lived.

“It appears he or she consumed an entire snake, most likely a western diamondback rattlesnake.”

“The shelter itself is on private land,” says Elanor Sonderman, who earned her doctorate from Texas A&M University with a paper about the findings. “It is about 170 feet wide and 40 feet deep. The study of coprolites is a key to understanding how early peoples lived and what their daily meals were like.”

“The coprolites analyzed are about 1,500 years old, which we determined from carbon dating, and they tell an interesting story,” says Morgan Smith, a doctoral student in the anthropology department.

“We found rat bones in them, and also some prickly pear cactus the person ate, but also snake fangs and bones and other skeletal remains. It appears he or she consumed an entire snake, most likely a western diamondback rattlesnake.”

The team believes the snake remains provide two likely scenarios.

“First, the person—we don’t know if what was a man or woman—ate the snake as-is, the whole thing,” Smith says.

“Or second, it was some sort of ritual. Droughts were common then as they are today, and snakes—especially rattlesnakes—were viewed as ‘drought demons’ and these had to be literally slayed to release water and bring the drought to an end.

“It could be compared to a rain dance today.”

The team also believes their findings could be the first direct evidence of venomous snake consumption by a human.

“There are records from these regions, from the Hopi to the Aztecs, that have ceremonies using snakes,” says Sonderman.

“In the case of the Aztecs, snake rituals seem to have been used during ceremonies honoring the rain god, Tlaloc. We can’t know for sure why the person who produced the coprolite ate the snake, but the rock art in the Lower Pecos region also exhibits snake iconography.”

Smith says the findings open new doors for future coprolite discoveries, even those that that have been sitting on shelf for decades like these.

“It give us more clues about how early humans lived in the area,” he says, “and there are bound to be more clues out there.”

The research appears in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The Summerlee Foundation Texas History Grant and the Texas A&M anthropology department funded the study. Crystal Dozier of Wichita State University also contributed to the research.

Source: Texas A&M University