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Archaeologist of dogs: Were they first domesticated in the Middle East?

The Middle East may have been the cradle of mankind, or one of its cradles. Maybe it also birthed the relationship with man’s best friend.

Now prehistoric rock art found in Saudi Arabia apparently showing men hunting with dogs on leashes adds to even earlier burials with dogs right here in Israel. The evidence could bolster the well-accepted theory that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated – and could also indicate that the transition from wolf to dog happened right here in the Levant.

Archaeology is the science of finding and the art of interpretation. The authors of the paper in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology date the Arabian art to roughly 9,000 years ago, though critics cavil that the date could be off by centuries if not millennia. Even the writers themselves, led by Maria Guagnin of Max Planck, admit that the dating is speculative.

Preserving a skeleton found in the anciet Ashkelon dog cemeteryCredit: Roee Shafir and Assaf Oron

Even if that dating from 8,000 to 9,000 years ago for the Arabian art is askew, pottery fragments with dog pictures found in Khuzistan, Iran, date to about 8,000 years ago. The shards arguably show dogs, not wolves, on the grounds that wolves do not normally sport merrily curling tails.

Predilection for pooch

The rock art was found in Shuwaymis and Jubbah, in northwestern Saudi Arabia. The area, once fertile, underwent extreme aridification around 6,000 years ago. Some think the pictures show not just dogs, but a specific breed: Canaan dogs.

Frankly, they could be anything. The images are stylized, distancing them from ready identification, and almost certainly the ancients weren’t deliberately creatting breeds . At least the likelihood that the pictures represent Dog rather than Somewhat Morphologically Changed Arabian Wolf is increased by the depiction of variation in the beasts, from their tails to their coat patterns. Some seem to have stubby tails and some impressively long ones, and curled to boot, even spiral.

Rock art from the Negev, apparently showing dogs, ibexes and people.Credit: David Eisenberg-Degen

Yet the denizens of ancient Arabia were clearly not the first people in the region to appreciate dogs.

People were found buried with dogs in prehistoric sites in Israel. At Eynan (a.k.a. Ain Mallaha), one of 12 bodies found was a woman with her hand resting on a puppy, dated to around 12,000 years ago. At Hayonim Terrace, a man was found interred with two small dogs, some 13,000 years ago. “A detailed analysis of these dogs, and a comparison with all known Natufian remains, suggested that genuine dogs were already living around and within human habitations during this period,” wrote Eitan Tchernov and Francois Valla in 1997. (Do not confuse these with the enigmatic pre-Natufian burial with a fox, found in Jordan and reported in 2011.)

The dogs of the Natufian (around 12,500 to 9,500 B.C.E.) looked like dogs. They may have been wolf-like perhaps, but they had undergone morphological change. “We seem to be looking at a fairly established state of domestication,” says Prof. Steve Rosen of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

But is this the first domestication of Dog? Who knows. Maybe some wolf in China or Siberia thousands of years earlier had the first mutation that would become associated with domesticity. Rosen points out that the mere use of the word “domestication” can be extremely misleading.

Indian elephants: Domesticated, or complaisant?Credit: Sigal Yosha, Maklat Mamidbar

What is domestication anyway?

Right now genetic analyses have produced two competing theories: that dogs were domesticated in Europe about 15,000 years ago, or in Asia a tad later.

Maybe all are right and dogs were domesticated multiple times in numerous spots. If so, it would indicate by the way that “domestication” – whatever that is – may not have been that great a trick.

Canaan dogsCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

“What we have here in Israel is really, really early evidence for a close relationship between dogs and people,” explains Rosen. “The morphological (phenotypical) changes we associate with biological domestication are the last stage in the domestication process. There were, of necessity, behavioral changes – selective pressures – which acted on wild populations. So what defines domestication, the behavioral changes (and they were incremental) or the morphological changes?”

We cannot know whether Natufian Israel introduced the first domestication of the dog – we can never know if something was first in archaeology, only last, the professor points out. But we like to think that being buried with dogs – especially as one was a presumably cute puppy! – represents hearth, home and heart. “It really depends on how you want to define domestication,” Rosen explains.

The rub is, Rosen explains to Haaretz, is that there’s no agreement on what “domestication” means.

“Is an Indian elephant domestic, or tamed?” he demands. “Modern Indian elephant masters go out and trap a wild elephant, using a ‘domesticated’ elephant, and bring it into the domestic herd and train it. Is that domesticated elephant?” Good question.

“The dividing line between domestic and wild is not a line,” Rosen goes on to muddy the issue a little more. Take the camel: There are no wild ones in the Near East, just bad-tempered ones. But analysis has shown no morphological difference between wild camel remains dating to 10,000 years ago. So is the camel domestic?

He may be wearing a ribbon, but does that camel look domesticated to you?Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Don’t even ask him about the house-mouse – well, okay. During the Natufian period, as mankind gradually stopped running around with spears hunting and gathering and struck roots, the sedentary micro-environment he created attracted peckish pests, and the rest is history. The mouse experienced genetic modification, Rosen says. Wild-type mice and the animals in your pantry are now distinct species, but would you call the mouse “domesticated”?

So, “what is domestication” is like “are iguanas cute” – it’s eye-of-the-beholder stuff. “People don’t domesticate dogs, dogs are half self-domesticated,” Rosen says, offering an unusual view. (To be clear: Cats are self-domesticated, period.)

People settling down generate garbage. You think crud; ecologists think of a micro-environment that attracts predators. With all due respect to their savagery, wolves are delighted to scavenge, and so are dogs.

The ancient dog cemetery in Ashkelon, dating to about 2,500 years ago, at which at least 1,400 graves of individual dogs have been discovered.Credit: Roee Shafir and Assaf Oron

Now, if you have a dewy-eyed wolf puppy that becomes accustomed to sneaking around human habitats, stealing sloth steaks and getting cooed at, it isn’t domestic – but it could be a stage in domestication.

So did wolves turn into dogs in the Levant? Maybe. But then wolves exist everywhere in the world, from North America to Africa, and while there’s variation, they’re all one species, Rosen points out. So go figure which wolf evoked the warm fuzzies first, in whom, and where.

A question of breeding

Getting back to the Saudi Arabian rock art, there’s another issue. What the devil are we seeing?

At least for all their great age, around 8,000 to 9,000 years according to the authors, the Arabian pictures are well preserved. It is relatively easy to see the images, even if their interpretation is another matter.

Negev rock art, showing dogs and ibexesCredit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen

Israel is littered with petroglyph carvings in rock, mostly in the Negev, where the desert conditions are amenable to preservation, says Davida Eisenberg-Degen of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The Negev has over 200,000 such images, she says, though we cannot know when these pictures are from, she adds. (Nor will you find any, unless you try hard. Antiquities authorities keep their location secret to protect them from would-be vandals and collectors.)

“It’s very hard to date the oldest Negev art,” Eisenberg-Degen tells Haaretz. “There is a consensus that the images are apparently not older than 8,000 years, after the domestication of the goat, but most seem to be much later, from the Roman period and onwards.”

There are also rock carvings in the Golan Heights, including dolmens galore, and in the Judean Desert and more. But these are less well preserved than the Negev images.

In Saudi Arabia, we seem to be seeing men hunting with dogs leashed to their waists. If so, strikingly, they already had the dogs under control and their hands were free to use weapons.

Back in Saudi Arabia, the pictures at Shuwaymis and Jubbah may indicate differences in hunting style. Shuwaymis had more dog representations (204 in number), and more dogs per pack, up to 21. Jubbah showed smaller packs, up to seven dogs. The archaeologists speculate that prehistoric Shuwaymis was more prone to drought, necessitating different survival strategies. Different topography dictated different modus operandi with the dogs.

Rosen slams on the brakes. “That assumes the rock art represents reality, even at a statistical level,” he tells Haaretz. “That is simply not reality. Rock art is filtered through a lot of cultural filters, including the special functions of the rock (which vary considerably from place to place), the individual perceptions of the people actually creating the rock, the abilities of the mark makers, the number of mark makers, and more.”

Were these early dogs some specific breed? Some suggest the Saudi dogs look like the Canaan, a variety endemic to Israel and the surroundings, that does go back millennia in time. But frankly, to the layman, the Arabian pictures are barely identifiable as dogs and the most that can be said, is they don’t look like dachshunds.

Rosen agrees there seems to be no particular reason to identify the dogs as Canaans. Nor is there reason to associate the Iranian dogs on pottery with salukis, another suggestion that’s been made.

Meanwhile, the attitude towards dogs in the Middle East seems to have gone full circle over the last 10,000 years.

Feelings for Fido

Whatever fondness our forefathers felt for Fido, it seems to have deteriorated to disdain at some point. Possibly a cultural revulsion may have arisen because of the canine predilection for sniffing and even consuming excrement, Prof. Frank Hole of Yale, who studied the Iranian pottery, suggested to Haaretz.

Much however remains mysterious, such as ancient dog burials. The Levant abounds in dog graves, from the late Natufian through to biblical times, and even cemeteries. Ashkelon for instance has not one but at least two cemeteries for dogs, going back to the Persian conquest era some 2,500 years ago and a much earlier, smaller one. At least 1,400 dogs were buried in the later one, but part of the area was destroyed. The real figure may have been much bigger.

A grave from the Ashkelon dog cemeteryCredit: Roee Shafir and Assaf Oron

Many of the remains found there were puppies, interred between the 3rd and 5th century B.C.E., which has led to some remarkably grisly speculation.

They might have been sacrifices to the dogs. But there is no evidence of mass canine murder in the Ashkelon graves, where each dog was buried individually. Neither is there any sign of ritual, or that the dogs were especially venerated.

Siberian huskies in Tel Aviv, cooling in a fountain.Credit: Roni Schitzer

Maybe there was some worship of, or ritual connected with, dogs. Maybe their throats were ceremoniously cut, leaving no sign. Or, it is possible that, in an era before antibiotics, veterinarians and whole industries devoted to nutritionally balanced pet food, the dogs of ancient Ashkelon died naturally in large numbers.

Evidence of ancient dog companionship is legion. Phoenicians sailing out of the Levant to conquer the western Mediterranean Sea took various plants and animals with them, including dogs. Alexander the Great himself was believed to have a Canaan as hunting companion.

But biblical texts took a decidedly dour turn. 1 Samuel 17:43 says it all:

“And the Philistine said unto David, Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves?”

A tombstone marking the grave of a Chihuahua named Filka, Belgrade: Loving dogs is back in fashion.Credit: Darko Vojinovic, AP

Or there’s Deuteronomy 23:18:

“Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”

Awful stuff. The early Christians did not make much progress:

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls before swine” – Matthew 7:6

And as for the Muslims, though the dog is not scorned in the Quran, he is in some hadiths.

Moving on several centuries, Israel today is thronged with pet dogs, including breeds better suited to other climes, like huskies, and even the odd St. Bernard.

Now, if somebody were to take a stone chisel and start carving a Boston terrier on a rock, in another 9,000 years somebody would probably come along and say, “Oh look, how sweet, the primitives of the 21st century already domesticated the Pikachu.”