Some coprolites, or fossil feces, from about 30,000 years ago, have served to identify the presence of bearded vultures (Gypaetus barbatus) in the Paleolithic site of Lagar Velho (Portugal). The comparison of the coprolites located in the excavations with the current bearded vulture feces has made it possible to verify the presence of these animals in that past period. The research is a good example of the importance of identifying coprolites when documenting the presence of these birds at the sites and studying their relationship with prehistoric human communities.
The identification of this nest allows us to know how this vulture lived, which is characterized by following a peculiar diet, since between 70 and 80% of its diet is bones. The valley in which the site is located must have been an optimal place for this species to establish nests, as confirmed by the large number of coprolites collected during the excavation, as well as the bones digested by this vulture. This also opens the door to establish what the relationship with humans was in the past, since activities of groups of hunters and gatherers have also been documented at the site.
The Lagar Velho site is the fifth in which the presence of bearded vulture nests has been documented in southern Europe, along with those of Gritulu (Corsica), Grotte Noisetier (France), El Mirón (Spain) and Caldeirao in Portugal —the latter, yet to be confirmed— and is the first in the Iberian Peninsula in which its fossilized feces have been identified. “The bearded vultures are vultures that have gone largely unnoticed until now in the archaeological record, and that they live in caves and accumulate bones, like human groups of hunters and gatherers,” explains Montserrat Sanz, from the University of Barcelona (UB). , first signatory of the study and researcher at the Seminary of Prehistoric Studies and Research (SERP). The work now published establishes for the first time characteristics and criteria to be able to more easily identify the coprolites of these vultures and their presence in antiquity. The identification of the bearded vulture at the Lagar Velho site also opens up new perspectives on the presence of the bearded vulture in Portugal.
Some of the bearded vulture coprolites analyzed during the investigation. (Photo: UB)
To study these faeces from thousands of years ago, the researchers have compared the preserved samples with those of current bearded vultures that live in the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, as well as several samples provided by the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture. “There is very little difference between current feces and those from 30,000 years ago, practically only the color, which gives great reliability when making identifications,” explains Sanz.
Currently, this vulture is a bird that is highly threatened by anthropogenic pressure, to the point that its populations were reduced in the Pyrenees; in fact, in most of the Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal, where this study has been carried out, they disappeared. Thanks to various reintroduction and awareness programs, this bird is once again occupying spaces on the peninsula.
The excavations have been directed by Ana Maria Costa and Ana Cristina Araújo, from the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage of Portugal, and Joan Daura and Montserrat Sanz, from the UB and the Center for Archeology of the University of Lisbon (UNIARQ). Various institutions and organizations have participated in the work, such as the City Council of Leiria (Portugal), the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage of Portugal, UNIARQ, the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Spain, the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park (government of Aragón, in Spain), the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture and the Center for the Breeding of the Bearded Vulture in Human Isolation (Zaragoza, Spain).
The study is entitled “The characterization of bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) coprolites in the archaeological record”. And it has been published in the academic journal Scientific Reports. (Source: UB)