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Humans’ Love Affair With Dogs Dates Back to Prehistoric Times

Story at-a-glance -

  • At an excavation site in Siberia, dog remains between 5,000 and 8,000 years old were found buried alongside humans
  • The find shows early evidence of dog domestication as well as displays the close bond between the people and the dogs
  • Ancient dogs were sometimes buried with decorative collars, bones, bowls and jewelry

By Dr. Becker

Intriguing research has uncovered biological underpinnings of the human-dog bond. Research published in the journal Science last year revealed, for instance, spikes of the “love hormone” oxytocin are triggered by mutual gazes between a dog and its owner.1

Not only does it appear that humans are hardwired to bond with dogs, but the feeling, and the hard wiring, may be mutual. This strong of a relationship doesn’t develop overnight, of course.

Archeological digs by anthropologist Robert Losey, Ph.D., of the University of Alberta and colleagues have revealed that humans have been strongly bonded with dogs for thousands of years.

Prehistoric Humans Had Strong Bonds With Ancient Dogs

At an excavation site in Siberia, Losey found dog remains between 5,000 and 8,000 years old buried alongside humans. The find shows early evidence of dog domestication as well as displays the close bond between the people and the dogs. Losey explained:2

"The dogs were being treated just like people when they died … They were being carefully placed in a grave, some of them wearing decorative collars, or next to other items like spoons, with the idea being potentially that they had souls and an afterlife.

… Globally you can see that there are more dog burials in prehistory than any other animals, including cats or horses. Dogs seem to have a very special place in human communities in the past.

As soon as we see skeletal remains that look like the modern dog — say 14,000 years ago — we see dogs being buried."

Chemical analysis of dog bones showed that they ate similar foods as humans, which suggests the humans may have fed the dogs their “table scraps.” It’s thought that dogs were bred for specific purposes even early on, including as working dogs.

Ancient dogs likely helped ancient humans in their daily tasks along with providing companionship. Ancient Romans, for instance, were known to have lapdogs thousands of years ago.

Ancient Dogs Found Buried With Bones, Bowls

As Losey pointed out, there have been many discoveries of ancient dogs buried alongside humans, sometimes with bones placed next to their noses or bowls nearby.

In one prehistoric dog unearthed in the Moravian region of what is today known as the Czech Republic, a mammoth bone was found in his mouth — and thought to have been placed there by a human.

Also noteworthy, dogs buried at the sites had holes in their skulls, which may have been part of a burial ritual done to release the animal’s spirit from its body. Such finds have been discovered at sites around the world.

For instance, Dody Fugate, an assistant curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico, maintains a database of hundreds of prehistoric dog burials found in the Southwestern U.S. Such burials appear to have been most common between 400 B.C. and A.D. 1100.

Fugate has asked archaeologists to take special note of dogs at burial sites, as at one point they weren’t given much significance in the field (animal bones at archeological sites are typically there as evidence of what the humans were eating, but such is not the case with dogs).

Dog burial sites, and the fact that they’re often found alongside humans, gives important insights into how prehistoric peoples actually lived and what was valued. As reported by National Geographic News:3

“Throughout the region, dogs have been found buried with jewelry, alongside adults and children, carefully stacked in groups, or in positions that relate to important structures, [Fugate] said …

Fugate has conducted an ongoing survey of known dog burials in the area, and the findings suggest that the animals figured more prominently in their owners' lives than simply as pets, she said.

‘I'm suggesting that the dogs in the New World in the Southwest were used to escort people into the next world, and sometimes they were used in certain rituals in place of people,’ Fugate said.”

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Other Unusual Dog Burials Show Long Connection With Humans

Egypt is the site of a large number of ancient dog burials. One of the most unusual included five dogs found in burial jars in Abydos, a royal monument.

One of the dogs was so well-preserved that his long, brown-auburn-colored fur was still largely intact. He was so large that researchers couldn’t figure out how he fit inside the jar, earning him the nickname Houdini. Salima Ikram, Ph.D., professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, told Seeker:4

“Sealed and buried in layers of protective sand, and cocooned in their jars, the animals’ bodies were well-preserved so that they could serve as vehicles for their spirits, or kas, for eternity.”

Also in Egypt was the discovery of dog catacombs containing 8 million mummified puppies and dogs, which are thought to have been offered to Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death. Unlike in the other burials, in which dogs appeared to have been valued for companionship and work contributions, the catacombs provide evidence that dogs in the area were probably bred or “farmed” for the purpose of being sacrificed.5, Ikram said:6

"You don't get 8 million mummies without having puppy farms. And some of these dogs were killed deliberately so that they could be offered. So for us, that seems really heartless. But for the Egyptians, they felt that the dogs were going straight up to join the eternal pack with Anubis. And so they were going off to a better thing."

When Dogs Evolved From Wolves Remains a Mystery

It’s thought that modern dogs have one common ancestor — the Eurasian grey wolf. Although up for debate, sometime around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, it’s thought a subspecies of wolf began interacting with humans, perhaps foraging for food around human campsites.7

Humans soon learned the animals were valuable for companionship and work purposes and began to selectively breed them. When, exactly, dogs emerged is unclear, but as anthropologist Losey put it, perhaps it’s not when that matters most but how their relationships with people evolved. One thing’s for certain — dogs made an imprint on human hearts long ago and that imprint will likely never fade.