Dogs are “man’s best friend,” but how long have they been our four-legged companions? A recent study suggests that dogs and humans may have formed close relationships as early as 6,000 years ago — a relationship that involved humans feeding the dogs, but ended with the dogs being sacrificed. Canine remains from this era have been uncovered before, but this study adds 26 more specimens found alongside humans in graves on the Iberian peninsula.
To determine the dogs’ relationship to the humans, investigators looked to the dogs’ diets. These meals are long gone, but traces remain in the atoms of the bones, specifically carbon and nitrogen, which slowly change their conformation as time passes. Scientists compared the atom conformations—called isotopes—in the dog skeletons to those in other animal skeletons with known diets. Some of the puppies’ diets were appeared to contain combinations of cereal grains and animal protein, while others may have been totally vegetarian — both consistent with humans of the time. The skeletons also allowed them to estimate each dog’s age. The presence of baby—technically, puppy–teeth revealed that most of the dogs buried in the graves were puppies. Additional microscopic analysis of the bones showed breaks and missing bones that suggest the dogs may have undergone some mutilation at the hands of humans.
So, what tales do these bones tell? It seems that this 6,000-year-old civilization may have raised dogs and fed them human-like food before sacrificing them in a burial ritual. This discovery was made possible by a collaborative team of archaeologists and archaeozoologists. This cross-disciplinary perspective unearthed the histories of these ancient canines, found in their final resting place alongside their human guardians.
Managing Correspondent: Aparna Nathan
Original article: Dogs in funerary contexts during the Middle Neolithic in the northeastern Iberian Peninsula (5th–early 4th millennium BCE) – Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Media coverage: New Study Looks at Why Neolithic Humans Buried Their Dogs With Them 4,000 Years Ago – Smithsonian Magazine
Image credit: Jason Auch/Wikimedia Commons