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Dogs have been our hunting companions for thousands of years but when did this partnership begin? Scholars believe that dogs descend from the gray wolf, Canis lupus, the largest member of the Canid family, which includes foxes and coyotes, but have not yet established where they were first domesticated. Was it in the Middle or Far East or did dogs accompany our ancestors out of Africa? It is more likely that they were domesticated in several places at different times.

Did we domesticate dogs or did they adopt us? A widely accepted theory suggests that smaller, less-aggressive wolves started hanging around human habitations to scavenge their leftovers. Perhaps they then started following the hunters and joined in the chase; they may have sniffed out the quarry and chased them towards the waiting humans. Or it may have happened the other way round, with humans following dogs and stealing their dinner!

The most tantalizing evidence of dogs living alongside humans comes from the Chauvet Cave in the south of France that dates to around 26,000 years ago, where a 150-foot trail of footprints made by a child, 8 to 10 years old, were found in the clay floor alongside those of a large canid – a dog or wolf. A skull that is more like that of a domesticated dog than a wild wolf was found at Goyet Cave in Belgium and dated even earlier - to 31,700 years ago.

A study of over a 100 dog burials from prehistoric Japan provides very early evidence that dogs did indeed help people hunt. Angela Perri, now a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, studied the Jōmon culture, hunter-gatherers living along the east coast of Japan from about 16,000 to 2400 years ago. Around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, as the climate warmed, pine forests gave way to dense woodlands of oak, maple, and birch that attracted prey like deer and wild boar. About 9000 years ago, the Jōmon began to bury their dogs alongside their human dead. Both humans and dogs, in individual graves, were arranged as if they had curled up and gone to sleep. Some dogs were given the same grave goods - shell bracelets and deer antlers, as the humans.

Perri went on a boar hunt in a dense forest near Hiroshima with a group of hunters and their dogs - bloodhounds and shiba inus, to get an idea of how they may have worked together. The dogs dashed into the forest and started barking just 10 minutes later to let the hunters know they had tracked down their prey. Now their role was to warn the hunters when they got near the boars and protect their masters.

Dogs often feature in rock art. A lively red ochre painting from Tassili, Southern Algeria, for example, depicts a hunter and his four dogs pursuing a wounded deer. More elaborate paintings, sculptures and mosaics from early civilizations in Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia and China continued to celebrate dogs as valued companions on the hunt. We shall return to their story later.

A 2500-year-old bronze bell depicting a Jōmon hunt with dogs. from Tokyo National Museum (http://www.tnm.jp/)

Tassili rock painting

 

Article by Celine Castelino

 

 

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