A new study of ancient carvings showing hunters using dogs to overwhelm prey points to a partnership between humans and canines as old as 9,000 years.
Our bond with dogs is etched in stone.
For thousands of years man’s best friend has been by our sides, helping us hunt, herd and heal from emotional stress. Now, in a study published earlier this month, archaeologists exploring rock engravings in the Saudi desert have found what they say may be the earliest depictions of human-canine companionship.
The ancient carvings date back about 8,000 to 9,000 years and depict hunters using dogs to overwhelm prey such as gazelles and ibex before they fired killing blows with bows and arrows.
“You can almost hear the dogs barking and the humans yelling,” said Melinda Zeder, a curator of Old World archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the study. “You can almost smell the fear in the animals.”
Most Read Local Stories
- Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler concedes primary defeat to Trump-endorsed challenger Joe Kent
- Seattle area cooldown could mean lightning, thunderstorms
- Trump-backed challenger Joe Kent surpasses U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, leaving her on edge of primary defeat
- After a bit more heat, petrichor — a Seattle favorite — may be on the way
- Anti-abortion Church at Planned Parenthood pastor says he'll intensify WA protests
With their pricked ears, angled chests and curly tails, each dog in the rock art resembles the modern breed of Canaan dogs. In one scene there are two lines connecting the necks of two dogs to the hips of the humans.
“This is the first imagery of a dog with a leash,” said Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Germany, and an author of the study that appeared in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. He said that because of where the lines were on the dog and human’s anatomy, they most likely represented actual leashes and were not mere symbolic lines.
Petraglia added that the rock art most likely dated to the early Holocene period, which began around when the Paleolithic ice age closed. But he acknowledged that the team was unable to date it directly because the etchings left little indication for when they were carved. Instead the team correlated the rock art with nearby archaeological sites that they had dated.
The team also found that the dog images were carved beneath images of cattle, which they said indicated that the dog images came earlier. They said earlier evidence had suggested these particular ancient humans had domesticated dogs before they began keeping cattle. They added that the transition from being hunter-gatherers to herding most likely occurred between 6,800 B.C. and 6,200 B.C., which they used to hypothesize that the rock art featuring dogs appeared before humans began herding.
“We can now say about 9,000 years ago people already controlled their dogs and had them on leashes and used them for really complex hunting strategies,” said Maria Guagnin, an archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and lead author. She worked in partnership with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.
Guagnin analyzed more than 1,400 panels of rock art that contained more than 6,600 animals across two sites. The images showed dogs helping humans hunt equids, or African asses, as well as fearsome lions and leopards. Some artwork depicted the dogs taking down medium-sized prey and in others they were used to corner larger prey.
“It’s a little bit heart-wrenching, the equids are usually mothers with their young being attacked,” Guagnin said. One such image featured 21 dogs, two with leashes, surrounding an equid and its children. “It’s quite interesting to see these scenes with the dying animals and there are dogs hanging off them.”
Guagnin was not sure why the dogs would have been leashed, but she speculated it might indicate the dog was young and learning to hunt or it was important and the hunters wanted to keep it away from danger.
Zeder questioned the dating, saying that the team needed stronger evidence to support their claim that the images were as old as they believed. But she called the images striking and said they showed a collaboration between humans and dogs where humans were in control, which is a rare find among archaeological remains.
“This is giving us an actual window into the visceral thrill of the hunt,” she said. “With the rock art you’re putting flesh on the bones.”