Ancient Art Features Dogs, On Leash

Images from 8000 years ago offer new information
By Karen B. London PhD, December 2017

One piece of ancient art in an archaeological find shows a man surrounded by over a dozen dogs, two of which are connected to him by lines that could represent leashes. In a recent news article in the journal Science, researchers discuss the importance of this discovery, along with other similar carvings, found on sandstone cliffs in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

The engravings are believed to be at least 8000 years old, which makes them the oldest known artistic representations of dogs. The lines, probably leashes, suggest that humans trained and directed the behavior of dogs thousands of years earlier than previously estimated. Groups of dogs shown with people holding weapons suggests that the dogs participated in the humans’ hunting activities.

The image depicting the dogs and one human is one of 1400 rock art panels (from two separate sites 200 kilometers apart) that together contain approximately 7000 animals and humans. Hunter-gatherers came to the region (perhaps for the first time, perhaps not) about 10,000 years ago, and the oldest images—of curvy women—date from this time. Between 7000 and 8000 years ago, the people in the region became herders, and images of livestock became common.

In between the panels depicting women and those depicting cattle, goats and sheep, many images of hunting dogs were made. In total, there are 349 carvings of hunting dogs at the two sites, all with morphological characteristics of domestic canines, such as curly tails and short snouts. Some panels show dogs challenging wild donkeys or biting the necks and bellies of ibex and gazelles. Many show dogs who are apparently tethered to people carrying bows and arrows.

The images from the two different sites are different. At one site, the art shows large dog packs which may indicate the use of hunting dogs to drive prey into corners where the terrain was uneven. At the other site, smaller groups of dogs are shown, and one theory is that these dogs ambushed prey when they were drinking at sources of water.

Though nobody can be certain about what the lines between hunters and dogs mean, there are several possibilities. People may have used the lines to keep valuable dogs close so that they were safe and protected. Another possibility is that dogs on leashes were those that were still in the process of being trained. It’s even plausible that the link could simply be a depiction of a close bond rather than a literal representation of a leash.

According to the article, Oldest images of dogs show hunting, leashes, the images suggest that these ancient people had bred dogs who were adapted to desert hunting. The main archaeologist on the project showed some of the images to a colleague who studies ancient dog bones and the canine researcher reports that she “about lost my mind”. She went on to say that these images tell her more than she can learn from a million bones and that “It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to a YouTube video.”

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.