Tracking Populations Through Poop

Here’s a unique application of technology.  Researchers used human waste (and Agilent) to identify changes in ancient populations.

Our bodies produce organic molecules called fecal stanols when we digest cholesterol.  In other words, they show up in our poop.  Amazingly, fecal stanols can persist in sediment for hundreds to thousands of years.  As a result, the abundance of these molecules in the environment can be directly linked to the relative size of a population in a specific landscape.

U.S. researchers studied sediment samples from Horseshoe Lake, Illinois.  This area served as a watershed for the Cahokia Mounds, site of a massive prehistoric civilization.

(Cahokia Mounds was the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico.  An ancient civilization of 10,000-20,000 inhabitants lived here during 800-1400 CE.)

The researchers used several Agilent technologies in their chemical analysis of core samples, including a gas chromatograph, mass selective detector, autosampler and ChemStation software.

“The trends present in the stanol results are consistent with the population history inferred from demographic reconstructions of Cahokia based on architectural data,” the researchers found.

“The correlation of this study and previous Cahokia population reconstructions provides confirmation that fecal stanols are useful for tracking ancient population change in temperate environments.”

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