Τετάρτη, 15 Σεπτεμβρίου 2010

Dogs in the Ancient World: More than Man's Best Friend

Egyptian Sarcophagus (c.2100-1750 B.C.) shows a man walking his dog
Photo by Araldo de Luca


Today there are some 77 million dogs in the United States alone. But as late as 20,000 years ago, it's possible there wasn't a single animal on the planet that looked like today's beloved (at least in some cultures) ''Canis lupus familiaris''.

Just how and when the species first became recognizably "doggy" has preoccupied scientists since the theory of evolution first gained widespread acceptance in the 19th century. The idea that dogs were domesticated from jackals was long ago discarded in favor of the notion that dogs descend from the gray wolf, ''Canis lupus'', the largest member of the Canidae family, which includes foxes and coyotes. While no scholars seriously dispute this basic fact of ancestry, biologists, archaeologists, and just about anyone interested in the history of dogs still debate when, where, and how gray wolves first evolved into the animal that is the ancestor of all dog breeds, from Neapolitan mastiffs to dachshunds.

Were the first dogs domesticated in China, the Near East, or possibly Africa? Were they first bred for food, companionship, or their hunting abilities? The answers are important, since dogs were the first animals to be domesticated and likely played a critical role in the Neolithic revolution. Recently, biologists have entered the debate, and their genetic analyses raise new questions about when and where wolves first developed into what we today recognize as dogs.

It can be very difficult to distinguish between wolf and dog skeletons, especially early in the history of dogs, when they would have been much more similar to wolves than they are today. What are perhaps the earliest dog-like remains date to 31,700 years ago and were first excavated in the 19th century at Goyet Cave in Belgium. Paleontologist Mietje Germonpré of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences recently led a team that studied a canid skull from the cave and concluded that it had a significantly shorter snout than wolves from the same period. This dog-like wolf could represent the first step toward domestication and would make the Paleolithic people we call the Aurignacians, better known as the first modern humans to occupy Europe, the world's first known dog fanciers.

But the analysis is controversial, and there is a large gap between the age of the Goyet Cave "dog" and the next oldest skeletons that could plausibly be called dog-like, which date to 14,000 years ago in western Russia. Perhaps the Goyet Cave wolf represents an isolated instance of domestication and left no descendants. But based on finds of dog skeletons throughout the Old World, from China to Africa, we know that certainly by 10,000 years ago dogs were playing a critical role in the lives of humans all over the world, whether as sentries, ritual sacrifices, or sources of protein.

The archaeological record suggests dogs were domesticated in multiple places at different times, but in 2009, a team led by Peter Savolainen of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm published an analysis of the mitochondrial DNA of some 1,500 dogs from across the Old World, which narrowed down the time and place of dog domestication to a few hundred years in China. "We found that dogs were first domesticated at a single event, sometime less than 16,300 years ago, south of the Yangtze River", says Savolainen, who posits that all dogs spring from a population of at least 51 female wolves, and were first bred over the course of several hundred years. "This is the same basic time and place as the origin of rice agriculture. It's speculative, but it seems that dogs may have first originated among early farmers, or perhaps hunter-gatherers who were sedentary".
 
But this year a team led by biologist Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that domesticated dog DNA overlaps most closely with that of Near Eastern wolves. Wayne and his colleagues suggest that dogs were first domesticated somewhere in the Middle East, then bred with other gray wolves as they spread across the globe, casting doubt on the idea that dogs were domesticated during a single event in a discrete location. Savolainen maintains that Wayne overemphasizes the role of the Near Eastern gray wolf, and that a more thorough sampling of wolves from China would support his team's theory of a single domestication event.
 
University of Victoria archaeozoologist Susan Crockford, who did not take part in either study, suspects that searching for a single moment when dogs were domesticated overlooks the fact that the process probably happened more than once. "We have evidence that there was a separate origin of North American dogs, distinct from a Middle Eastern origin", says Crockford. "This corroborates the idea of at least two 'birthplaces.' I think we need to think about dogs becoming dogs at different times in different places".
 
As for how dogs first came to be domesticated, Crockford, like many other scholars, thinks dogs descend from wolves that gathered near the camps of semi-sedentary hunter-gatherers, as well as around the first true settlements, to eat scraps. "The process was probably driven by the animals themselves. I don't think they were deliberately tamed; they basically domesticated themselves". Smaller wolves were probably more fearless and curious than larger, more dominant ones, and so the less aggressive, smaller wolves became more successful at living in close proximity to humans. "I think they also came to have a spiritual role. Dog burials are firm evidence of that. Later, perhaps they became valued as sentries. I don't think hunting played a large role in the process initially. Their role as magical creatures was probably very important in the early days of the dog-human relationship".
 
Whatever the reasons behind their domestication, dogs have left their pawprints all over the archaeological record, sometimes literally, for thousands of years. Over the following pages, we explore not only the roles dogs played in past cultures throughout the world, but how ancient artists celebrated our oldest companions.

1,000-year-old dog buried by Peru's Chiribaya people was a much-beloved pet
Photo: Reuters-Mariana Bazo

Constant Companions
As anyone who has ever had a dog knows, there is little to compare to its faithful companionship. Evidence for love of dogs in the ancient world is abundant, from Homer's account of Argos waiting for his master to return from the Trojan War to the careful burials of cherished pets all over the world.
 
And, as many owners also know, dogs live for treats. Even in the afterlife, their owners liked to spoil them. Behind the Stoa of Attalos, the main public building of the ancient Athenian market, a 4th-century grave was found containing the skeleton of a dog with a large beef bone near his head. And the Chiribaya people of Peru (A.D. 900-1400) also made sure that their pets had something to snack on after death. In 2006, archaeologists working in an ancient cemetery near the city of Ilo in southern Peru found the well-preserved remains of 80 dogs interspersed with the burials of about 2,000 people. Each dog had its own grave next to its owner, some were wrapped in finely woven llama-wool blankets, and many had llama and fish bones next to their noses. The dogs ranged in age from puppies to adults, and most died from natural causes.
 
Sonia Guillén, director of the Mallaqui Center in Ilo and the leader of the excavation, believes that these dogs were not only pets, but also were used to herd llamas and alpacas, which explains why they were highly valued even after death. Guillén is working to establish a link between these centuries-old breeds and modern Peruvian herding dogs.
 
The ancient Egyptians also cherished their dogs, not only as deities ("The Dog Catacomb"), but also as companions in this life--and the next. A mummy of a small dog that dates to the 4th century B.C. was found in the sacred Egyptian city of Abydos in 1902 alongside that of a man identified on his coffin as Hapi-Men. Both mummies are now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
 
Hapi-Men and his companion, "Hapi-Puppy," were recently part of a project to reexamine several mummies from the museum's collection. Hapi-Puppy was taken to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital for a CT scan that confirmed he was indeed a dog (not a cat, as was also thought possible.) According to anthropologist Janet Monge, who led the scan study, Hapi-Puppy died at about two years of age, more like an adolescent than a baby, and had the same size, stockiness, and power of a Jack Russell terrier. "Hapi-Men must have loved his dog, and after his death, it seems that the dog pined away and died soon enough to have been mummified and buried with his master'', says Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo. According to Ikram, this practice was not uncommon. "There are much earlier Middle Kingdom (2080-1640 B.C.) tombs that depict a man and his dog, and both are named so that they can survive into the afterworld together", she says.
 
Studying the remains of dog burials, even those from thousands of years ago, often has an emotional impact on researchers. "Perhaps of all the archaeological cases for pets I can think of", says Michael MacKinnon, an archaeologist from the University of Winnipeg, "I believe the Yasmina 'sick' dog is the most poignant". Along the north wall of the Roman-era Yasmina cemetery in the city of Carthage in Tunisia, excavations led by Naomi Norman of the University of Georgia uncovered a 3rd-century A.D. burial of an adolescent/young adult in a carefully made grave topped with cobbles and tiles, and with the skeleton of an elderly dog at its feet. The dog was also buried with one of the few grave goods found in the cemetery, a glass bowl carefully placed behind its shoulder.
 
The Yasmina dog, which probably resembled a modern Pomeranian, is an example of a toy breed, and one of the earliest specimens to be identified as a Maltese. But what is more remarkable about the dog is that, despite a host of physical problems including tooth loss that likely required it to eat soft foods, osteoarthritis, a dislocated hip, and spinal deformation that would have limited mobility, the dog survived into its mid-to-late teens. It was clearly well cared for, and even death could not separate it from his owner, according to MacKinnon. "Whether the dog represents a sacrifice [perhaps meant to 'heal' the sick person in the afterlife] or just companionship is unknown, but these two aspects need not be mutually exclusive. There is a great connection between humans and animals in Roman antiquity. To me, this aspect of animals garnering sentimental value and being treated like humans is a key aspect of Roman culture".

At the medieval town of Kaná in Hungary, excavators uncovered five overturned pots containing puppies, which may have been sacrificed to ward off evil spirits
Courtesy: Martá Daróczi-Szabó

Sacrificial Dogs
Sacrificing dogs to appease supernatural forces has been a part of religious traditions as different as those of ancient Greece, where the Spartans slaughtered dogs to ensure victory in battle, and Shang Dynasty China.
 
Some inscribed oracle bones dating to this period (1766-1050 B.C.) mention the rite of ning, which involved dismembering a dog to honor the winds. Often sacrificed dogs were single offerings, as was the case of the dog killed at the Minoan site of Monastiraki in Crete, where excavation director Athanasia Kanta last year found a small bench with a skeleton of a dog (missing its head) and several conical cups arranged around it. Kanta interpreted the find as a sacrifice to appease the gods following a large earthquake—there are collapsed walls and fire damage throughout the site.
 
At the site of Sardis in Turkey, once the capital of the Lydian Empire (680-546 B.C.), excavators uncovered 26 small pits, each containing four pots—a cooking jug, deep cup, shallow bowl, and small pitcher, all used for common meals—along with an iron knife and the bones of a puppy. According to one of Sardis's long-time excavators, Crawford Greenewalt Jr. of the University of California, Berkeley, the burials are the remains of a ritual meal, perhaps dedicated to the Lydian version of the god Hermes. "I do not believe these deposits are evidence of cynophagy [eating dogs], which was not part of the normal ancient Mediterranean diet", he says.
 
Some dog sacrifices are on a more massive scale. In 1937, archaeologists excavating in the Agora, the main marketplace of ancient Athens, made a stunning discovery—a well containing bones from hundreds of people, including approximately 450 newborns, and from more than 100 dogs. According to Lynn M. Snyder, who is re-examining the animal bones from the well, the infants likely died of natural causes. But she believes the dogs were "most likely sacrificed as part of a purification ritual after a birth, whether successful or not". Several ancient Greek sources identify dogs as the victims of choice to cleanse the pollution caused by both death and childbirth.
 
But dogs weren't just sacrificed in antiquity. In Hungary, a team excavating a site in the medieval town of Kaná just outside Budapest, discovered more than 1,000 dog bones, about 12 percent of all the mammal bones at the site. From these, Márta Daróczi-Szabó, an archaeozoologist at Eoetvoes Loránd University in Budapest identified five puppies, buried in pots, that were sacrificed and placed into the construction trenches of several buildings. Daróczi-Szabó believes that the puppies and several other dog burials at the site were intended to ward off evil, a custom that survived in Hungary into the 20th century.
 
Although similar sacrifices have been found at other Hungarian excavations, especially of religious sites, Daróczi-Szabó was surprised by the pots from the domestic contexts at Kaná. "From these kinds of sacrificial pots, dog remains are very rare", she says. "More often eggs or chicken bones are found. So I was very excited by these finds". Daróczi-Szabó believes they suggest the practice of dog sacrifice was quite common during the Middle Ages in Hungary. "Despite the formal institution of Catholicism by the first Hungarian king, István I (1000-1038), who banned pagan rituals, it shows that part of the population still maintained these rituals in spite of the ideological dominance of Christianity".

Ivory knife handle found with a dog burial
Courtesy: University of Reading
Dogs in Roman Britain
"There were quite a lot of dogs here, and in Roman Britain in general", says Michael Fulford, director of the excavations at Silchester, the site of the large Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum in southern England. Decades of excavations have uncovered dozens of dogs of all types, ranging from terrier- to Labrador- and even greyhound-sized. Some were stillborn or died at birth, while others lived to ripe old ages. And although a few dogs show clear signs of having been killed deliberately, at least one was very well treated. Although the dog was rendered permanently lame by multiple leg fractures, it bore no trace of infection, suggesting that its paw was cleaned and immobilized, allowing it to heal properly.

"What's interesting too is that dogs were treated both as rubbish and also reverentially", says Fulford. His team found an early 3rd-century A.D. pit with the remains of a puppy that was killed (the team is not sure how), two other dogs, a raven, and two doubly-pierced pot sherds. The dogs were also buried with a knife that was probably used as a razor and had an ivory handle in the form of two coupling dogs. According to Nina Crummy, the excavation's finds specialist, the burial of the knife, an expensive object that had been made on the continent, would not have been lightly undertaken. "It should be interpreted as a deliberate burial, either as a kind of grave gift accompanying the burial of a pair of valued dogs, or a votive offering connected with the ritual life of the inhabitants [of this area of the city]", she says.

The dogs from Silchester are also evidence that in the Roman world, small dogs were favored over larger ones. According to University of Winnipeg archaeologist Michael MacKinnon, the spread of toy breeds by the Romans represents shifting attitudes toward pet-keeping, or an ardent effort to incorporate pet ownership into the more regular uses of dogs, such as herding and guarding. "It seems to be a Roman phenomenon that I suspect ties in with conspicuous consumption by the elite and other attempts at wealth and showiness", says MacKinnon.

Archaeological evidence from the Roman world, including Silchester, also suggests that they may have been breeding for smaller dogs. "Bow-legged animals occur [starting in the] early Romano-British period, as does the absence of the lower third molar and crowding of the premolars", says Kate Clark, the Silchester team's bone specialist. "These conditions are due to the rapid diminution of the species whereby jaw size decreases faster than tooth size".

One of the most charming signs of dog life at Roman villas, farms, and military camps across Britain are the pawprints left in drying building tiles. There are dozens of these tiles from Silchester, and hundreds from Roman Britain—perhaps as many as one percent of all the tiles produced there according to Fulford—proof that it is not just modern dogs who stick their paws where they may not belong.

The remains of thousands of dogs were discovered in the Dog Catacombs of Saqqara, Egypt
© P.T. Nicholson

The Dog Catacomb
In 1897, French Egyptologist Jacques De Morgan published a map of the necropolis of Saqqara, the burial place of Egypt's first capital city, Memphis. The map includes the only known plan of the "Dog Catacombs" at the site, but no information about the date or circumstances of their discovery. In fact, virtually nothing is known of these catacombs.

Last year, director Paul Nicholson, began a Cardiff University-Egypt Exploration Society mission to the catacombs, which date from the Late and Ptolemiac Periods (747-30 B.C.), the last dynasties before the Romans conquered Egypt. They hope to learn if the De Morgan plan is accurate and see if they can find any clues to the early history of the catacombs' exploration. Right now they are completely remapping the catacombs and looking for clues to the circumstances of their discovery, such as travelers' graffiti and lamps from earlier explorers.

The first catacomb, one of two main locations for dog burials at Saqqara, was the subterranean element of the Temple of Anubis—the jackal-headed god of the dead—a little to the south. According to the map, the temple had a long corridor that was probably a ceremonial route and numerous shorter tunnels on each side filled with thousands of mummified dogs and animal remains. The majority of these animals would have been votive offerings by pilgrims who hoped that the deceased animals would intercede with the deity on their behalf. Others, however, may have been representatives of the god and lived within the temple compound. Some of the dogs that were buried in special niches in the tunnel walls, rather than being piled in the great mass of remains, may be those animals. Many seem to have lived to considerable age, while other animals met their deaths after only a few months.

But the question remains—are they really all dogs, as the catacombs' name suggests? Preliminary examination by the American University in Cairo's Salima Ikram, the project's animal bone specialist, suggests that many of the mummified animals, now mostly lacking their wrappings, are indeed dogs. But according to Ikram, "Anubis was a kind of super-canid, so it is likely that jackals, foxes, and maybe even hyenas were mummified and given as offerings to Anubis". There is also still debate about exactly what kind of canid Anubis was meant to represent. Although the concept of dog breeds is a modern one, we hope to discover more information about the species, types, ages, and genders of the animals in the catacombs to understand how the god was perceived.

Source: Archaeology

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