By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Dogs may have been crucial assets to human lifestyles much earlier than previously believed, based on ancient drawings discovered in sandstone cliffs in the Arabian Desert. Prior to the discovery, the earliest known depictions of dogs on leashes were from an Egyptian wall painting thought to be about 5,500 years old.1 The engravings discovered in Saudi Arabia are thought to be 8,000 to 9,000 years old, making them the earliest evidence for both dogs on leashes as well as dogs on the Arabian Peninsula.
“Hunting scenes depicted in the rock art illustrate dog-assisted hunting strategies from the 7th and possibly the 8th millennium BC, predating the spread of pastoralism,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.2 Nearly 150 different hunting scenes are depicted in the area, some showing the dogs attacking gazelles, fighting wild donkeys or leashed to a human holding a bow and arrow.
The scenes also give clues as to how humans tailored their hunting strategies for the environment, with larger packs of dogs found in the art in the Shuwaymis region, which may have been useful for driving prey over the terrain. In the Jubbah region, smaller packs of dogs are depicted, perhaps because they hunted by ambush, targeting prey that stopped to take a drink.3
“Particularly notable is the inclusion of leashes on some dogs, the earliest known evidence in prehistory,” the researchers wrote. “The leashing of dogs not only shows a high level of control over hunting dogs before the onset of the Neolithic, but also that some dogs performed different hunting tasks than others.”
Ancient Dog Drawings Resemble Modern-Day Canaan Dog Breed
Most of the dogs in the drawings have curled tails, upright ears and are reminiscent of the Canaan dog breed, which is one of the oldest breeds in the world and one whose lineage hasn’t been altered by humans.4 The dogs are thought to be native to Israel, and the researchers suggested the ancient dogs in the drawings may have been bred from these ancient hunting dogs or could have even been domesticated independently from the Arabian wolf.
Deciphering the ages and meanings of ancient drawings is not an exact science, of course, but experts agreed that the discovery is an important one. Even if the lines attaching dogs to humans aren’t leashes, per se, they’re still indicative of a close relationship.
As Science reported, Paul Tacon, Ph.D., an archaeologist at Griffith University in Gold Coast, Australia, suggested the leashes could be a symbolic representation of a bond, but, “Either way, he says, that bond was clearly strong, as the artists appear to have depicted dogs they actually knew, with particular coat patterns, stances, and genders. ‘These creatures were very important, beloved companions.’”5
Others suggested actual leashes or tethers may have been used to keep the dogs protected or for training purposes. Earlier research by Angela Perri, Ph.D., a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who co-authored the featured report, suggests dogs may have also been revered hunting companions among ancient Japanese populations, particularly those living in the Holocene forest, as the dogs were buried in ways similar to human hunters.6
The practice then appeared to have been abandoned with the advent of farming.7 As for the featured study, Perri told Science, “Such a relationship would have been critical to helping people survive a harsh environment. Dogs could take down gazelles and ibexes too fast for humans.”8
Ancient Humans Bonded With Ancient Dogs
Although the study depicts the use of leashes, and thus dogs as hunting aides, much earlier than expected, separate evidence from ancient burial grounds also suggests dogs were valued members of the community even in prehistoric times. Archeological digs by anthropologist Robert Losey, Ph.D., of the University of Alberta and colleagues, for instance, have revealed that humans have been strongly bonded with dogs for thousands of years.
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:9
"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 even showed 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.
What makes the Saudi Arabian finding so unique is that it’s an actual visual depiction of how humans may have interacted with ancient dogs, and as the saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words — or bones, as it were. Perri told Science, “A million bones won’t tell me what these images are telling me … It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to a YouTube video.”10