April 25 (UPI) -- Archaeologists have found evidence that an early hunter-gatherer consumed an entire venomous snake.
The complete undigested remains of the snake -- minus one fang -- were found inside a coprolite, or fossilized feces, deposited by a hunter-gatherer in a cave in Texas' Lower Pecos region.
The cave that was used as a shelter -- and as a latrine -- some 1,500 years ago was first discovered in the 1960s. Archaeologists excavated thousands of coprolite samples. The dry conditions inside the rock shelter worked to preserve the excrement.
Hundreds of the coprolite samples were analyzed in the wake of the excavation, but hundreds more went into storage, including one with the full remains of a venomous snake hiding inside.
"My colleagues and I were assigned this coprolite as part of a class project in graduate school. None of us, nor our professor, had any idea that this coprolite would be so special," archaeologist Elanor Sonderman told UPI. "It was pure serendipity."
While researchers can't say for sure whether snake consumption was common among the people of the Lower Pecos, archaeologists have previously found evidence that similar groups ate snakes.
Some 1,500 years ago, the region was quite arid. Humans living in the region would have been forced to subsist on a variety of small animals and hardy plants. Additional coprolite analysis revealed the remains of a small rodent, as well as several types of plants, including an asparagus-like species and prickly pear cactus.
While it's possible desperate times in the midst of a drought compelled the hunter-gatherer to eat a venomous snake, archaeologists suggest it's more likely the consumption was part of a ritual.
"Going to ritual is often considered a cliche in archaeology but we feel confident that ritual is a possibility at the very least," said Sonderman. "We presented ethnographic cases of cultures, such as the Hopi putting snakes in their mouths as part of rain-bringing ceremonies."
"We also presented reference to an image in a Codex from the Aztec of central Mexico, showing humans with snakes in their mouths surrounding the rain god, Tlaloc," Sonderman told UPI. "Given that these groups exist/existed in regions nearby Conejo Shelter, it's a reasonable assumption that these cultural behaviors could have been used widely in the Lower Pecos."
Other types of food remains in the hunter-gatherer's excrement suggest the person was eating a fairly typical diet prior to consuming a whole venomous snake.
Researchers described their surprising discovery this week in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.