A Bone for the Wolf Dog

A poignant moment in the history of dog domestication

Posted Oct 10, 2011

European wolf in Kolmården, Sweden.

The dog lived between 25,000 and 24,000 BC in Předmostí, in what today is the Czech Republic. Probably between 6 and 8 years old when he died, like others at the site, the dog's skull showed damage, in this case a broken tooth, perhaps from scavenging food off the bones of animal carcasses, perhaps from being hit on the short, blunt snout that distinguished the new dogs that lived with the mammoth hunters at the site. Their teeth were crowded in their blunt snouts. Standing 24 inches tall at the shoulder, and weighing 75 to 80 pounds, these were big, heavy animals, able to carry packs weighing 35 to 50 lbs. The mammoths, so abundant at the site, would have provided the food necessary for these dogs to survive.

This account of what we now can say are some of the earliest dogs to emerge in ancient Europe is based on an article by Mietje Germonpré, Martina Lázničková-Galetová and Mikhail Sablin, accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

What has drawn most attention in the press is another reported fact about the specimen described here, referred to as Předmostí (-). The skull of this early dog was recovered with upper and lower jaws articulated. Between its teeth was a piece of animal bone, possibly from mammoth, that the researchers argue was placed in the animal's mouth after death.

Coverage by Discovery News quotes the authors saying that possibly

"the dog was 'fed' to accompany the soul of the dead person on its journey."

Past Horizons goes a step further, saying

The large bone in the dog's mouth could signify that the dog was ‘fed' to accompany the soul of the dead person, the dog's master, on its journey into the afterlife.

This is a subtle difference, but one worth thinking about. How could we know that a specific early dog had a one-to-one relationship with a human being who can be characterized as its "master"?

One of the things that makes us human is our cultivation of other animals as companions.

Today, a multitude of dogs and cats, turtles and birds, and even less likely candidates (tarantulas, anyone?) share our houses, attention, and affection.

Such a fundamental part of our way of being; and yet, the roots of entanglement of humans and other animal species continue to be debated.

Complicating the picture is uncertainty about what we are seeking to understand: when and how animals came to cohabit with humans, without necessarily losing their independence? Or, when animal populations living in close proximity to ancestral humans became so significantly embedded with us that we can see physical differences from the still-wild populations?

What we are asking about is made less certain by behavioral differences between domesticated animals. Modern cat owners often talk about cats as if they were still wild, but Felis catus is a separate species from its suspected ancestor, the African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica. Meanwhile, man's best friend, Canis lupus familiaris, despite its much greater emotional dependence on human companionship, is recognized as the same species as the wolf, Canis lupus lupus. So what are we interested in: animals that have, through their association with us, become new species? or that, while remaining part of a wild species, have changed behavior so much that they are now a population recognizably dependent on humans?

Ultimately what most people find most intriguing is the phenomenon of keeping cats and dogs (and snakes and spiders) for no particular value they might provide. When archaeologists are asked about dog domestication, we are not just being invited to talk about when humans began to shift the genetics of Canis lupus populations in directed fashion. We are being asked to trace a genealogy for an animal companion, a pet kept for love.

Which brings us back to the research on early European dogs. We want to see these as animal companions, looking to specific people. Past Horizons quotes University of Alberta anthropology professor Rob Losey saying that the

"distinctive treatment given some of the remains also is compelling", and this indicates to him that a special connection had developed between people and some dogs early on - long prior to any good evidence for dogs being buried.

What Losey is drawing attention to is the fact that the gesture of placing an animal bone in the dog's mouth was not repeated, but specfic to this one individual.

Reviewing the way that circum-polar hunter-gatherers relate to the large dogs on which they depend for assistance in hunting and transporting heavy loads in an extreme environment, the authors of the article summarize this slightly differently. They suggest this dog "was fed with some specific purpose in mind", and list a range of possibilities: "appeasing the spirit of the animal, inviting it to come back, and/or to accompany deceased people".

Observing that other dogs-- although not this one-- had skulls perforated, they suggest that along with the dog buried with a mammoth bone, these altered canine skulls suggest "the possibility of the existence of a wolf/dog ritual that could be connected with the sending of souls".

The models used all are historically recent. They come from societies where dogs were already domesticated, already an integral part of human society.

The Předmostí dog, though, is something else. It comes from a period when dogs were just beginning to separate from wolves. It is not entirely clear that we can assume the people at this site would have viewed the two as separate species, and it is entirely certain that they had no category yet for domesticated animals, into which the dogs might fit.

At a minimum, the bone was certainly placed in this dog's mouth by one of the people who buried it after it died. We might be justified to take that as a sign of particular regard for the particular personality and history of this dog, not just a general attitude toward dogs, or wolves, in general. Perhaps we are seeing the dawn of traditions holding that dogs could guide deceased humans on their journey after death. But that seems to me to presume a modern understanding of dog-human relations. Maybe we need to accept that this is a gesture we can note, but not explain: a sign of the individual recognition of this dog, perhaps as personal as anything a dog owner might do today when burying a beloved animal.

For me, what remains is the richer story of dog life at ancient Předmostí that can be pulled together from the overview of data: the first generation of dogs living with the mammoth hunters, sharing in the proceeds of the kill, working hard and dying with the regard of their human companions: not pets, yet, but possibly already among the best friends the human species had in its challenge of survival.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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