Tame canids appear throughout human history—but we still have only a vague idea of when the first domesticated dogs became distinct from wolves.
The Intimate Bond, (Bloomsbury, 2015) by Brian Fagan, offers an investigation of how our habits and our very way of life were considerably and irreversibly altered by our intimate bond with animals. From the first wolf who wandered into our prehistoric ancestors’ camp and found companionship, to the industrial age when some animals became commodities and others nurtured pets, Fagan explores the profound influence animals have had on human history. The following excerpt is from chapter 3, “Cherished Companions.”
To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.
Denmark, spring, 8000 BCE. The hunter crouches among the dense reeds, bow at the ready, and arrow hooked to the string. A pile of arrows lies to his right, ready for use. He watches the geese as they rest on the placid waters of the shallow lake after their arduous journey from the south. Feet in the mud, he remains motionless, waiting for some geese to swim within arrow’s range. To his right, his black-and-brown hunting dog lies quietly, and completely still, panting gently, alert. Half a dozen ducks paddle slowly close to shore. Slowly, deliberately, the man draws his bow and takes aim. The dog remains absolutely still, watching intently. Zip, zip . . . the hunter releases once, grabs another arrow and shoots again. The startled birds take to the air, but two struggle in the water, impaled by razor-sharp flint-tipped arrows. A soft command: the dog points, then slips into the water. He swims to the struggling fowl, grabs them one by one, and carries them to shore. The hunter quickly wrings their necks and puts them in a netting bag. His dog wags his tail and looks up expectantly. A pat on the head, and maybe a scrap of food, then back to the hunt as the hunter moves slowly to a new vantage point in quest of more prey. Hours later, dog and master return to camp, the last bird gripped firmly in canine jaws.
Wolves and humans got together in many locations, some bitterly cold, others much warmer. Despite the growing, if incomplete, evidence for wolf-dogs, we still do not know precisely when people fully tamed canines. One certainly could not describe wolf-dogs as fully domesticated—if they existed at all.
What evidence do we have for actual dogs? The earliest unquestionable dog came to light in the grave of a fifty-year-old man and a twenty- to twenty-five-year-old woman unearthed at Bonn-Oberkassel, Germany, by quarrymen’s picks in 1914. The quarrymen shattered most of the bones before archaeologists investigated the burial with methods that were extremely crude by modern standards. Unfortunately, only a jaw fragment of the fourteen-thousand-year-old beast survives.
When I excavate a burial, I always wonder what events surrounded the interment, whether animal or human. Did the deceased perish from old age, from chronic disease, or a war wound? Was he loved or held in contempt? Did she have children and what rituals surrounded her passing? Many of these questions can be teased from the bones (from telltale signs of injuries caused by hard work, or of serious infections), and from DNA. The Bonn-Oberkassel burial is particularly fascinating, because the earliest-known dog in the world lay with two people, perhaps its master and mistress.
At fourteen thousand years ago, the Bonn-Oberkassel beast is a very ancient dog indeed. But was it a dog or its close wild relative, a wolf? Distinguishing dogs from wolves is notoriously difficult, especially when the surviving bones are fragmentary, as they usually are. Domestic dogs are generally smaller. Their teeth and skulls display minor differences from those of wolves. To tell the two apart is challenging at best, so the experts have turned to a statistical tool known as discriminant function analysis. The researchers have designed a classifier that combines measurements from the bones from known wolves and domesticated dogs to produce spreads of measurements around an average, so that a jaw such as that from Bonn-Oberkassel can be compared with the averages for both wild and domestic canids. Zooarchaeologist Norbert Benecke compared the Oberkassel jaw with other archaeological finds and with bones from Greenland wolves and specimens from zoos, even from Australian dingoes. He found that it belonged firmly in the dog category, making this find—alas, sadly incomplete after the passage of a century—the earliest-known domestic dog yet known.
Is Oberkassel the earliest dog in the world? Certainly not, for the changeover took hold in many locations at a time when major environmental changes caused by rapid warming at the end of the Ice Age were under way. At present, the Bonn-Oberkassel beast is the earliest known and, lying alongside a human couple, suggests an intimate human-animal relationship, at minimum one of companionship. By fourteen thousand years ago, dogs begin to turn up in other places, among them, settlements in the Dnieper River Basin on the Central Russian Plain. Two nearly complete skulls are about the same size as those of modern-day Great Danes, large beasts that could possibly have been wolves held in captivity, or even wolf-dogs. There are other dog finds from the Ukraine, but what is striking is that the size of dog bones falls sharply after fifteen thousand years ago, especially among specimens from Southwest Asia dating to around nine thousand to ten thousand years ago, by which time domesticated dogs were commonplace and significantly smaller than wolves.
We’ll never know why a man and a woman were buried with their dog fourteen thousand years ago, for the intangibles of the past vanish within generations. Was it a faithful companion, a protector, or a beast valued in the hunt? Was it killed to accompany its owners into the other world or did it die somewhat later? Once again, the archaeological record is silent. That it was cherished is a certainty, for the mourners took the trouble to inter it with those who were presumably its owners. At the moment, this is the earliest dog burial known, but more important, it is the first in a tradition of dog burials that survived through thousands of years in different societies, whether those of hunters or farmers.
It may be no coincidence that the first domesticated dogs appear at a time when the grip of the last Ice Age cold snap was loosening. Within a few thousand years, rapid warming and environmental shifts had wrought profound changes in hunting societies over huge tracts of the world, from western and northern Europe, across Eurasia, and into Southwest Asia. Natural global warming rapidly shrank the great ice sheets that mantled Scandinavia, the Alps, and what is now Canada. Sea levels rose, continental shelves vanished under the ocean, and temperatures climbed. The northern world changed profoundly as ice sheets and open steppe retreated northward and gave way to more closed-in woodland and forest.
Thousands of hunters and foragers adjusted to these environmental changes in various ways. Some hunting bands moved northward from sheltered valleys in southwestern France and northern Spain and into the more open terrain of areas such as the Paris Basin and northern Germany, where they continued to hunt reindeer and other Ice Age animals, as they had always done. Others moved to newly exposed coasts and to lakes formed by the retreating ice and became fisher folk and fowlers. Many groups stayed where they were and adapted to lives where wild plant food became as important as game. The prey they hunted was no longer reindeer and other cold-loving animals, but red deer and other forest beasts, taken by patient stalking and with bow and arrow. In a changing world where solitary prey, birds on the wing, and waterfowl assumed great importance, the dog came into its own and became far more than a companion—this at a time when no one cultivated the soil or herded animals. For the first time, it served as a true hunting partner in ways that overcame the limitations and size of the human hunter.
In an era of smaller, more elusive game, the dog’s matchless sense of smell and silent tracking abilities paid rich dividends when the hunter was pursuing forest deer or small rodents. A well-trained hunting dog could flush waterfowl and recover shot prey from lakes and rivers. Today, there are numerous breeds of “hunting dogs” (among them hounds, retrievers, and terriers) or gun dogs. Some dogs track game by their scent. “Sight hounds” are breeds, such as whippets, that have acute sight and can run fast. They course prey from a distance, pursue, and kill it. Spaniels are adept at flushing out game for a hunter, while terriers are skilled at locating dens and capturing bolting inhabitants. Retrievers are excellent swimmers, which makes them ideal for retrieving waterfowl as well as birds on land. All these breeds, and many others, result from selective breeding by their owners.
There were, of course, none of these breeds twelve to fifteen thousand years ago, but constant association with hunters and patient training, almost certainly using rewards, would have adapted dogs into a useful tool for the hunt. The key word may be companion , for it seems unlikely that dogs did much of the killing. A hunter would have known his dog intimately and as well as, if not better than, his quarry. He would have recognized the telltale signs when the dog sensed a deer or some other hidden quarry, even a bear. However, in a world where more and more food came from birds of all kinds, especially waterfowl, dogs would have been invaluable for retrieving kills made among dense thickets or on the water. The hunters must have trained their dogs to remain under control, to wait quietly when sent to retrieve. Animals with “soft mouths,” who were willing to please and obey, would have been ideal for retrieving game unharmed, without consuming it at once. Sometimes they would have watched the bird fall. At others, they would have listened for directions from the hunter, who would have stayed on shore as the dog swam into deeper water. The reward back at camp would have been, perhaps, a bird or parts of the quarry.
All this is a hypothetical projection back over many thousands of years, but it gains traction when one considers the hunting weapons of the day. The Cro-Magnons and other Late Ice Age hunters used antler and bone-tipped spears, but their descendants adopted much lighter hunting weaponry that reflected both more forested landscapes and also the need to hunt birds and other small game over land and water. They developed lethal arrows tipped with small, razor-sharp stone arrowheads known to archaeologists as microliths (from the Greek micros , for “small”; lithos , for “stone”). Thousands of microliths have come from European hunting sites dating to between 10,000 and 6000 BCE. At a long-used hunting camp on the edge of a glacial lake at Star Carr in northeastern England dating to about 8500 BCE, the inhabitants hunted a wide variety of mammals, including red and roe deer, as well as waterfowl, including ducks. From this settlement has come a dog skull whose carbon isotope readings reveal a diet that may have included waterfowl, fish, mollusks, plant foods, and deer meat. At Vedbaek, across the North Sea in Denmark, a well-known hunting site of 5300 to 4500 BCE, the inhabitants were highly efficient hunters who relied on a very broad array of game and plant foods, and on fish. Here again, microliths were commonplace. Two dog skulls come from the site, one found in a grave.
Over many centuries, dogs became companions and hunting partners in a world of wetlands and forests. They were also guards, and some may even have carried or pulled loads, a common role for them in ancient North America, but there are no signs of this occurring as early as, say, ten thousand years ago. One should also note that dogs were sometimes themselves eaten. There are many instances from Danish hunting camps and other locations of dog bones being cracked open for marrow and skulls exhibiting chopping marks.
Quite apart from companionship or partnership in the hunt, or even faithful service as a pack dog, dogs clearly had spiritual associations in many ancient societies—if burials are any guide. Such connections cannot be discerned in the mirror of the intangible after thousands of years, but we know that dogs had powerful mythic associations in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, and among the Romans and in Greek society. Hindus consider dogs as the guardians of Heaven and Hell. The Dominican order of monks has adopted a black-and-white dog as its symbol—in Latin, domini canes , “dogs and hounds of the Lord.” The Norse believed that a bloodstained watchdog named Garmr guarded the gates of Hell.
As we have seen, dog burials began at least fourteen thousand years ago. The Bonn-Oberkassel dog lay in a double grave. At Ain Mallaha, in Israel, an immature dog or possibly a wolf puppy lay in an eleven-thousand-year-old grave of an older person, whose hand rested on the chest of the small beast. Another Israeli site, at Hayonim Terrace, yielded two dogs buried with people between 9000 and 8500 BCE. Dog interments became positively commonplace in later times. At Skateholm, in Sweden, fourteen dogs lay interred in a cemetery, four of them lying with people; one, with a deliberately broken neck, placed atop the legs of a woman. Some dog burials lay with grave goods and were scattered with red ocher.
Dogs arrived in the Americas with the first human settlers, some of the few domesticated animals available to the Native Americans. Their genetic diversity confirms that they didn’t originate there, but they acquired powerful ritual associations, reflected, once again, in deliberate burial. Examples abound, among them three dog burials dating to about 6500 BCE from a long-occupied hunter-gatherer site at Koster, on the Illinois River in the Midwest, each deposited in a shallow pit apparently without much ceremony. The densest concentration of dog burials comes from archaeological sites in the Green River Valley of Kentucky, where at least 111 interments have come from 11 shell mounds, 28 of them with humans. There are also major concentrations in the central Tennessee River Valley in Alabama.
We know of canine ritual roles from carefully preserved oral traditions collected by anthropologists and others. The best known are those of the Cherokee of the southeastern United States, sometimes known as the Dog Tribe. The Cherokee’s sacred dog restored order and harmony in the face of chaos. It rebalanced humans with the forces of their world. The same animal created a path to the spirit world, acted as a judge of ethical behavior, and ensured that rituals were carried out properly. Above all, dogs protected humanity and guided it on its way to the Underworld, which gave dogs a profound association with death and the West, the realm of the dead and the night sky.
The notion of restoring order and balance may well have been the reason for ancient dog burials in many societies. Sacrificing a dog to act as judge and to guide a deceased individual who had committed some form of ritual transgression might have restored spiritual balance to a community. To place a dog at the head or at the face of the deceased, where the soul left the body, would symbolize how dogs acted as ritual leaders. The Cherokee sometimes buried dogs with deceased shamans, perhaps to guide these especially powerful souls away from the realms of the living.
We’ve lived in close association with dogs for some fifteen thousand years, a relationship that began among hunters facing the challenges of a rapidly warming world. From the beginning, the close ties between dogs and people may well have forged even closer spiritual associations that were to endure in changing forms for thousands of years. Dogs and humans became partners in daily life long before widespread droughts and a variety of other compelling factors turned hunting bands in southwestern Asia, and soon afterward elsewhere, into farmers and herders about twelve thousand years ago. And it was then that the relationship between people and animals changed history dramatically as new domesticated animals assumed dominant roles in human lives.
Dogs suffer from a transmittable genital cancer, a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that causes bleeding genitals or forms grotesque tumors in canines wherever they live. This contagious cancer first appeared in a dog that lived about eleven thousand years ago. Unlike other cancers, which die with the patient, this sexually transmitted cancer passed to other dogs during the victim’s mating activities while it was still alive. A team of researchers sequenced this cancer genome, which carries about two million mutations, far more than in most human cancers, which have between a thousand and five thousand. They used an infected Australian Aboriginal camp dog and a spaniel from Brazil, two beasts separated by more than sixteen thousand kilometers (ten thousand miles). The genetic makeup of the tumors from both animals was remarkably similar. By using a single mutation, known to accumulate through time, they were able to estimate that the cancer first appeared about eleven thousand years ago, when agriculture was taking hold in Southwest Asia and the Ice Age was in full retreat. They also compared DNA from modern tumor cells to the genotypes of 1,106 coyotes, dogs, and wolves. They believe that the original cancer-carrying beast may have resembled an Alaskan malamute or husky, with a short gray-brown or black coat. The sex of the animal is unknown, but most likely it was a relatively inbred individual.
Transmittable cancer is commonplace among today’s dogs, but it existed among a single isolated dog population until about five hundred years ago. Since then, the cancer has spread widely around the world, perhaps carried by dogs that accompanied ships on global voyages during the European Age of Discovery. The tumor mutation rates showed that the Australian and Brazilian dogs’ cancer cells separated about 460 years ago.
Cancers, both in animals and in humans, arise when a single cell acquires mutations that cause it to produce more copies of itself. The cancer cells can then metastasize to other parts of the body. But for them to leave the bodies of their original hosts and spread to other individuals is very rare indeed. The only other known transmittable cancer is a fast-moving facial cancer found in a carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian devil, spread by biting.
The unknown canine ancestor that hosted transmissible cancer has passed us a genome to help cancer researchers better understand the factors that drive the evolution of many types of cancer. Above all, these researchers have an opportunity to understand what processes cause cancers to become transmissible and that could, one day, arise in either animals or humans.
Reprinted with permission from The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History by Brian Fagan and published by Bloomsbury Press, 2015.