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By Michelle C. LANGLEY 

Based on GONZALEZ, A., G. CLARK, S. O’CONNOR and L. MATISOO-SMITH 2012 A 3000 year old dog burial. Australian Archaeology 76:13—20.

Domestic dog (Canis familiaris) is the oldest domesticated animal in the world. It is not surprising that humans and dogs teamed up early in prehistory, as by working together and living side by side, both human and dog greatly benefit from the partnership.

Modern dogs come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colours resulting from human intervention in their breeding. People have bred dogs which are suited to various environments and tasks – such as the Siberian husky (left) which was bred for the cold conditions and common activities of the northern region. On the right is an example of a ‘village dog’, here photographed in India. This dog is similar to those found throughout southeast Asia, as well as that found in the Timor-Leste dog burial (photos courtesy of Michelle Langley and Antonio Gonzalez).

Modern dogs come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colours resulting from human intervention in their breeding. People have bred dogs which are suited to various environments and tasks – such as the Siberian husky (left) which was bred for the cold conditions and common activities of the northern region. On the right is an example of a ‘village dog’, here photographed in India. This dog is similar to those found throughout southeast Asia, as well as that found in the Timor-Leste dog burial (photos courtesy of Michelle Langley and Antonio Gonzalez).

Dogs provide people with protection from threatening animals and hostile peoples and warn us of potential danger before it becomes apparent to us. They are efficient hunters and assist their human companions by locating and flushing out game, as well as assisting in the capturing of large and/or dangerous animals such as bovines, horse, and wild boar. In return, people provide dogs with a stable food supply, warm places to sleep and care when injured or ill—not to mention the benefits of companionship for both species.

The ancient ancestor of the modern domestic dog is the wild wolf of the pre-LGM (Last Glacial Maximum: ca 26,000–19,000 years BP). Until recently, the earliest well-preserved and well-documented remains of early domestic dog all came from European contexts dating to no earlier than ca 14,000–9,000 years ago. Recent research, however, has provided a canine skull from the Upper Palaeolithic site of Goyet (Belgium) with a direct age (that is, an date made on the skull itself rather than on artefacts found with the skeleton) of ca 36,000 cal. BP. This skull, however, has physical traits which do not allow for a clear determination of whether this particular animal represents the remains of a very early domesticated dog or a completely wild wolf. More certain, is the well-preserved remains of a ‘dog-like canid’ from Razboinichya Cave (Altai Mountains, Siberia). These remains are dated to ca 33,000 cal. BP, and most interestingly, seem to represent a group of dogs which were in the process of being domesticated by the local people before climatic and cultural changes associated with the LGM disrupted their transformation into domesticated animals. Consequently, this particular line of dogs does not have any direct domesticated ancestors.

This data, along with other lines of evidence, demonstrates that dog domestication was a multi-regional process—that is, groups of people in various areas domesticated their local dog populations creating their own domestic breeds, rather than a single group of dogs being domesticated on one occasion by one group of people, and then these animals being transported around the globe. In the Australian context, we have the now-native dingo which was transported here from East Asia by Indigenous Australians around 5000 years ago.

In AA76, archaeologist Antonio Gonzalez and colleagues present the discovery of a ca 3000 year old burial of a dog found in a site known as Matju Kuru 2, Timor-Leste. By examining the dog’s skeletal remains, it was found that the animal shared strong affinities with contemporary domestic dog—particularly, the ‘village dog’ type (shown above). Isotope values (calculated from proteins preserved in the bones) of the buried dog indicate that it was fed a diet dominated by plant foods, rather than hunted animals, suggesting that there may be an association between the Timor dog and agriculturalists (farming peoples). For the ‘big picture’, the Timor dog further supports the suggestion that domesticated dogs moved into the Indo-Pacific region in the company of prehistoric farming groups, though an earlier origin in association with hunter-gatherer groups is also possible.

That this particular dog, excavated from the Matja Kuru 2 cave, was given a burial suggests that during its lifetime it contributed to the welfare of those people it accompanied, and that this contribution was appreciated in some way. Historical information on human-dog interactions in the Indo-Pacific region suggests that dogs in this region were often used as hunting aids and watch dogs, and in returned received shelter and food; it seems likely that the buried animal was used in this capacity.

Some of the skeletal remains of the Matju Kuru 2 dog (Photo: A. Gonzalez)

Some of the skeletal remains of the Matju Kuru 2 dog (photo courtesy of Antonio Gonzalez).

Several mummified cats on display in The British Museum (photo courtesy of Michelle Langley).

Several mummified cats on display in The British Museum (photo courtesy of Michelle Langley).

While burial can simply be a way of disposing of a body, it is often considered to be a ritual act. The digging of the grave, the careful placement of the deceased’s body, the inclusion of grave goods, and the marking of the grave site all contribute to the process whereby surviving members of the group show respect for the deceased and say goodbye. Various animals have been found buried in a wide range of contexts in the past (think, for example, of the thousands of mummified cats in ancient Egyptian sites or the horses buried with ancient Celtic chariots). It is not surprising, given the long history of human-dog interaction and their role in our success as both hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists that these latter were also often buried.

For more information on the domestication of dogs see:

Germonpré, M., M.V. Sablin, R.E. Stevens, R.E.M. Hedges and M. Hofreiter 2009 Fossil dogs and wolves from Palaeolithic sites in Belgium, the Ukraine and Russia: Osteometry, ancient DNA and stable isotopes. Journal of Archaeological Science 36:473–490.

Gunn, R.G., R.L. Whear and L.C. Douglas 2012 A second recent canine burial from the Arnhem Land Plateau. Australian Archaeology 74:103–105.

Meehan, B., R. Jones and A. Vincent 1999 Gulu-kula: Dogs in Anbarra society, Arnhem Land. Aboriginal History 23:83–106.

Ovodov, N.D., S.J. Crockford, Y.V. Kuzmin, T.F.G. Higham, G.W.L. Hodgins and J. van der Plicht 2011 A 33,000-year-old incipient dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the earliest domestication disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum. PLoS One 6(7): e22821.  http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0022821

Sablin, M. and G.A. Khlopachev 2002 The earliest Ice Age dogs: Evidence from Eliseevichi 1. Current Anthropology 43(5):795–799.

Savolainen, P., T. Leitner, A.N. Wilton, E. Matisoo-Smith, and J. Lundeberg 2004 A detailed picture of the origin of the Australian dingo, obtained from the study of mitochondrial DNA. PNAS 101(33):12387–12390.