Ancient Clues About Human and Canine Relationships Revealed

8,000-year old cave engravings give evidence that we were successfully working with dogs in early human history.

By Jennifer Grant

Image: © Maria Guagnin et al. / Journal of Anthropological Archeology.

When did early humans begin a working and domesticated relationship with dogs? It is believed that canines where the first animal to be trained by humans, for the purpose of assisting with hunting. Some experts believe this took place as far back as 40,000 years ago.

Image: © Maria Guagnin et al. / Journal of Anthropological Archeology. The rock etchings have striking resemblance to the modern dog.

The closest living relative to the canines that we love as our family today, is the Gray Wolf.  Archeological records reveal the remains of a dog, originally believed to be a wolf, alongside 2 humans uncovered in Oberkassel, Bonn in Germany (1914). It would take 50 more years before technology advanced to the point that a DNA sequence could be done to determine that these bones actually belonged to Canis lupus familiaris; an ancestor of the current dog.  The bones are estimated to be 14,200 years old.

Still, little has been gleaned, historically, about the relationship dogs and humans have had, until now.

Image:  © Maria Guagnin et al. / Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. Figures have been highlighted in white post-photography to make them more visible.

Some clues have just been uncovered in beautifully preserved rock paintings in the Arabian Peninsula, among the sites of Shuwaymis and Jubbah (northwest Saudi Arabia). These paintings depict 8000-year old hunting scenes. What is most interesting about these is the presence of a leash for many of the canine images. It is the oldest bit of known evidence for a leash, indicating that at this point in history, humans have already domesticated dogs.

Image: © Maria Guagnin et al. / Journal of Anthropological Archeology

Maria Guagnin is the lead archeologist at the site, working with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Germany. At the Shuwaymis site, Guagnin has counted 156 dogs and 193 at Jubbah. It is quite the ode to canines!

The engravings show Canis lupus familiaris as distinct from wolves or hyenas that appear in other rock etchings. These images of dogs have jaunty ears, short snouts, and curled tails – features that are distinct to the domesticated canine.

Image: Oxford University

The region has been under study for some time, and it has already been established that humans moved into the area about 10,000 years ago. Dogs, for hunting, came first, then livestock and agriculture. It’s interesting to note that the rock paintings, showing herds of cattle, were carved and painted over top of dog hunting scenes.  Since both are still visible, Gaugnin and her team surmise that only a short period of time passed between the community switch from a hunting focus to agriculture.

Image: © Maria Guagnin et al. / Journal of Anthropological Archeology. Two hunting scenes showing some dogs leashed and others not.

Why are some dogs leashed and others are not? Two theories have been bandied about: that these leashed canines were more valuable to the hunter and thus were kept close so they didn’t get injured, or perhaps the leashed dogs were used as protection for the hunter.

As time passes, we become closer to our canine friends. We have even begun to evolve the same gut microbiota and allergies! I wonder what the future will hold? 10,000 years from now, when dogs rule the Earth, will they look back at photos with humans and try to piece together the story of what we were?