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Archaeologists May Have Unearthed the Oldest Toilet in Denmark

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The excavation of a Viking settlement in Stevns, Denmark has yielded an unexpected find: a 1000-year-old toilet. The latrine could be the oldest toilet in Denmark, reports ScienceNordic (via Real Clear Science) and might reshape how we think about Viking bathroom habits.

Researchers from the Museum Southeast Denmark were in search of pit houses (partially underground buildings that might have served as workshops) when they found the long-buried feces in a 6.5-foot-deep hole. They found fly pupae in samples from the bottom layer of the pit as well as mineralized seeds, which would be in line with the phosphate-rich, oxygen-poor environment of a giant pile of poop. Pollen analyses in the pit also indicate that the poop came from someone who ate honey—that is, probably humans.

This is what it looked like before lead researcher Anna S. Beck and her team dug in:

A before image of the pit covered in dirt
Museum Southeastern Denmark

While Viking cities may have needed toilets to deal with the high volume of human waste in concentrated areas, scholars have previously thought that out in the country, people didn’t need formal toilets, instead using the farm’s general refuse heap or taking care of their business in the stable with the livestock. But this pit seems to have been bounded by two posts that could have held poles, so it could have had a closed structure of some sort above it—which, judging from the burnt material found near the top of the pit, probably burned down.

A dug-out pit that could be Denmark's oldest toilet showing dark spots of feces
Museum Southeastern Denmark

This discovery could change that notion, although not all researchers are on board, according to ScienceNordic. Just because this area had a toilet doesn’t mean that every rural farmer did—someone in Stevns could have just been really into new technology. But at the least, this shows that this one subset of rural Vikings decided to forgo pooping in the stable for a stand-alone toilet.

"It is easy to think about people in the past as more primitive than us," Beck told Mental Floss in an email, "but things as combs, needles, tweezers—and now also toilets—show that the Vikings cared much about personal care and maybe even hygiene (though not in our sense of the word)."

And if outhouses like these were, in fact, a normal part of rural Viking life, it’s possible that archaeologists have just overlooked them in the past, thinking they didn’t exist. The new find could open up new avenues for research into the bathroom habits of Denmark's rural Viking populations.

[h/t Real Clear Science]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9-Year-Old Boy Trips Over the Bones of a Long-Extinct Elephant Relative
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A 9-year-old boy quite literally stumbled across a new paleontological discovery when he tripped over a giant skull while hiking in Las Cruces, New Mexico in November 2016. As The New York Times reports, the fossilized bones have been identified as the million-year-old remains of a Stegomastodon, a long-extinct distant relative of the modern elephant.

It all began with a game of chase: Jude Sparks, now 10, was running from his younger brothers when he tumbled face-first over what appeared to be a giant tusk. "My face landed next to the bottom jaw," Sparks told ABC news affiliate KVIA-TV. "I look farther up and there was another tusk."

Sparks's parents thought it looked like an elephant skull; his brother, a cow skull. As for Jude himself, he eyed the oddly shaped bones, and "just knew it was not something that you usually find," he later told the Times.

The Sparks didn't dig up the bones, but they did take a cell phone picture. Later, they compared the snapshot to elephant skulls, but they weren't 100 percent identical. So to solve the mystery once and for all, the family sought the opinion of Peter Houde, a biology professor at New Mexico State University.

Houde instantly recognized the skull as that of a Stegomastodon, a creature that belonged to the animal family Gomphotheres and is a distant cousin of ancient mammoths and modern elephants. Stegomastodons roamed the Earth in the past few million years, and may have been hunted by early humans. This particular specimen is at least 1.2 million years old. Theories for the Stegomastodon's extinction include climate change or the arrival of mammoths, which may have led to a competition for food resources, according to National Geographic.

Mammoth fossils are relatively common across the western portion of North America, but only a couple hundred Stegomastadons have been found throughout the world. The Sparks had serendipity on their side, as they visited the site right after heavy rains had exposed the Stegomastodon skull.

Together, Houde and the Sparks family reburied the skull and sought permission from the landowner to excavate the find. Once they obtained a team, a permit, and funding, they got to work and dug up the skull in May.

"All of the protein is gone from these fossils, and the bone is very, very brittle and fragile," Houde told KVIA. "And as soon as the sediment is taken away from around it, it just falls apart completely on its own. So we have to use preservatives to stabilize it before we remove the sediment around it. And then build plaster and wooden casing around it to remove it safely. It's a big job."

The Stegomastodon will likely go on display at New Mexico State University, providing students, faculty, and visitors alike with an up-close view of the rare fossil.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Melting Glacier Reveals Bodies of Swiss Couple Missing Since 1942
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On August 15, 1942, Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin ventured to the meadow above their house in the Swiss Alps to milk their cows. What should have been business as usual turned into a harrowing missing-persons case when the married couple never returned. Now, nearly 75 years later, two frozen bodies that likely belonged to Marcelin and Francine have been found in the dwindling Tsanfleuron glacier near their former home, Reuters reports.

An employee at the Les Diablerets resort in Switzerland's Valais canton saw the remains near a ski lift earlier in July. The bodies, one male and female, were perfectly preserved down to their belongings and 1940s attire. Experts believe the couple perished after falling into a crevasse. Like other Alpine glaciers, the Tsanfleuron glacier has been hit hard by rising temperatures associated with climate change. The glacier finally revealed the missing bodies this summer after years of receding.

When Marcelin and Francine vanished, they left behind seven children who never gave up hope of finding them. Seventy-nine-year-old Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, the couple’s youngest child, told a local newspaper the discovery brings her a "deep sense of calm."

The bodies will now undergo DNA testing to verify their identities. Once that's taken care of, Udry-Dumoulin plans to give her parents "the funeral they deserved."

[h/t Reuters]

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