Man’s Best Friends: Part I – The Dog

by Carl T. Feagans
If I tickle or play with my daughter, I’m immediately attacked (playfully) by the family dog that will defend her to the end. With the exception of dinosaurs, my daughter’s favorite two animals are dogs and horses and it’s reflected in her movies, toys and play. She loves to watch movies like Shaggy Dog, the Beethoven series, Flicka, Spirit, and two or three others about either horses or dogs. She has a dozen or so each in stuffed animals and often pretends to be a dog or horse as she plays.

My daughter, at five years old, accepts without question something that I think people have accepted for thousands of years: dogs and horses are special friends to humanity. I’ve been thinking of this special relationship that humanity has shared with a few, select species (dogs, horses, and cats) recently, partially because of my daughter’s own affinity for them, but also because it’s an obvious fact of humanity that is universal. Sure, there are other species of animals humans seem preoccupied with, but none so loyal, noble or revered as the three in parentheses above. To explore these relationships in detail I looked in the peer-reviewed literature to see what others had to say. In this short piece, I’ll discuss dogs and the information is found primarily in Darcy F. Morey’s article, Burying key evidence: the social bond between dogs and people, in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Morey’s main focus is on the funerary practices that people have carried out with dogs over thousands of years. Most anthropologists accept that the dog was the first domesticated animals and burials are found worldwide which date as far back as 12,000 to 14,000 years. Dogs are mostly buried individually and in ritual fashion as if they were a family member, often in positions intended to provide “comfort” as with paws under the head or with the head resting on the body. The consistent nature of body positioning at burial within each region gives the ritualistic quality, and the facts that people took the time and effort to bury the canine corpse below ground and carefully positioned provide evidence that dogs had special status for people in antiquity. In addition, many dog burials have been found with grave goods, including carefully positioned soft-shell clams at a grave site in Puerto Rico.

In other cases, dogs have been found buried with people, presumably the dog’s owner, suggesting that the relationship was such that when the owner died the dog was interred to provide continued companionship. Burials such as this were found in Kentucky at Indian Knoll (ca. 3000 BCE), where there were instances of children buried with two dogs. What better, more loyal companion to send into the afterlife to look after your child?

Morey quotes William Webb, the archaeologist that worked the Indian Knoll site in the 1960’s and 1970’s:

… one must conclude that dogs were often killed at the time of burial of their owner, and buried with them perhaps as a symbol of continued association in the spirit world.

And, to quote Morey:

What is most intriguing, of course, about their possible “continued association in the ‘spirit world’” is what such a projected association signifies about their relationship with people in life.

In Ashkelon, Israel during the Persian Period (ca. 500 – 300 BCE), approximately 1000 individual dogs were buried in individual graves in what can only be described as a dog cemetery. Over half of the burials were puppies and none showed signs of brutality, suggesting that the cause of death was disease or injury. If nothing else, the Ashkelon cemetery demonstrates that the idea of a pet cemetery is not something new and that people here accepted their dogs as members of the family.

The dog has been with us, archaeologically, for 12,000 to 14,000 years. That is to say, the archaeological record doesn’t reveal any contexts of domesticated dogs prior to 14,000 BP, the oldest context generally accepted to be at Bonn-Oberkassel in Germany, ca. 14,000 BP. At this site, a single piece of a dog jaw is associated with a human grave. Geneticists, at one point, attempted to pin down the domestication point at around 100,000 to 130,000 years ago, based on mutation rates. However, more recent data in canine genetic research puts that point at around 15,000 to 40,000 years ago – wide range, to be sure, but one that is more in line with the archaeological record. It’s been suggested more than once that the dog probably domesticated itself, living on the fringes of human settlements and slowly adapting to accept and coexist with people, living off of their trash (yes, people in antiquity had trash, archaeologists call them middens).

My dog thinks she’s a person. No doubt about it. As I write this, she’s lying on the couch on her back, dead asleep and snoring. When I go to bed, I know she’ll follow, jump on the bed, give me a quick “kiss” on the cheek then curl up at the foot of the bed where she’ll stay till sunrise. The best thing about a dog is that the love you get is unconditional. Even abusive humans are loved by their dog victims. Dogs provide services that extend beyond companionship by service to the blind, the autistic, the elderly, and the very young. There are even dogs that can alert their owner to impending seizures. Not to mention drug dogs, guard dogs, search dogs, rescue dogs, and cadaver dogs. And the list goes on I’m sure.

Next time, I’ll look at the relationship between people and horses.

Morey, Darcy F. (2006) Burying key evidence: the social bond between dogs and people. Journal of Archaeological Science, 33(2), 158-175.

13 thoughts on “Man’s Best Friends: Part I – The Dog

  1. Some idiot has to always make a negative comment. Dogs attack because we don’t respect them, Learn about dogs and youll see that their isn’t a dog (no matter how violent) that wont become submissive if the human does his part in providing leadership. Dogs might be great and spirtual and almost magical, but it doesnt mean they still arent animals and have needs.

    Oh and by the way i could take my dogs food for a week and he wont attack anyone for food (maybe try and steal some, but never attacks). Maybe its human psychology thats the problem

  2. When I was younger than your daughter, I had a labby that was just as much a companion as she was a nanny. Protective, loving, and submissive to me—-and she let the guinea pig take bathes in her water bowl and snack on her dog food.

    My labby now lets me do anything to him— including take food away from him. He lets the cat munch on his food.

    Some people can’t recognize, understand, or appreciate the bond between dogs and their owners. Ah well, their loss. Thank you for providing the anthropological perspective. Great read.

  3. Dogs are truly so essential in human evolution – they have allowed us to think outside of ourselves – they give us a perspective on life that our complicated mental processes too often miss – the dog shows us the love of the things that really matter – family, food and shelter…

    I lost my best friend of 13 years recently (a dog) – he was always there for me – he supported me in my times of grief – he shared my times of joy – he taught me far more than i could teach him – and i believe this is why we have built such a strong bond with such an amazingly giving and loving animal.

    Dogs teach us what is truly important – and they teach us the humanity that we so often forget.

  4. I believe that someday dogs are going to talk to us. Maybe not in plain English or not as complicated as we talk now but I am sure they will.

  5. moodr: i think they can already. i remember reading about a japanese invention that can interpret dog barks. :)

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