Studies of prehistoric dog burials have been making splashy headlines lately. Although the popular press would have us believe that these finds are proof of the affectionate relationship our ancestors had with dogs, the unifying theory that gives meaning to burial patterns remains elusive because ancient people left no written record.
What little we know about dogs’ social roles in antiquity is a patchy mosaic of information derived from physical analysis of bones excavated from gravesites. The accuracy of this mosaic has been further complicated by archaeologists’ long-standing difficulty with reliably distinguishing between wolves and dogs, not only because the two animals look similar, but also because changes in morphology during the early stages of domestication were subtle.
However, in 1986, zooarchaeologist Darcy Morey, now adjunct professor in anthropological sciences at Virginia’s Radford University, developed a statistical equation to more accurately identify dissimilarities between skulls. A decade later, geneticists were able to extricate even more conclusive information from DNA. Then, in a landmark paper published in 1999 in the Journal of Heredity, geneticists Carles Vilà, Jesus Maldonado and Robert Wayne suggested that the first domestication event occurred more than 100,000 years earlier than dog burial remains suggested. This marked the beginning of a decades-long trend that all but excluded archaeology and other academic disciplines from the equation.
Morey—and later, Greger Larson, evolutionary biologist in Durham University’s Department of Archaeology in the UK—challenged the exclusive use of DNA analysis to identify the time and place of the first domestication event. They advocated a return to a cross-discipline approach that included traditional archaeology, DNA analysis, isotope geochemistry and radiocarbon dating in the context of environmental sciences such as paleoclimatology and biogeography.
Robert Losey, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, is among the scholars who agree with this approach. “When the genetic information can be integrated with information on dogs’ diets, diseases, activity patterns and archaeological context, we get a much more complex and informative picture of people’s emotional and day-to-day lives with their animals than we can through genetics alone.”
Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the largest and oldest freshwater lake in the world, is known for its well-preserved Middle Holocene (3,000- to 9,000-year-old) hunter-gatherer cemeteries, which attract scientists studying how social and environmental pressures influence long-term cultural change. Leading a team of researchers from various disciplines, Losey analyzed numerous Lake Baikal sites containing human, dog and wolf remains dating back 5,000 to 8,000 years; the team’s findings were published in 2011 in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
As he explained, “What I tried to do in my study was to approach these dog skeletons just like we would a human skeleton. We applied a suite of analyses in order to tease out the interesting and relevant details of their lives. The best way to fully understand the domestication of dogs is to use as many forms of evidence as possible, and to employ a wide range of specialists.” Their interpretive model was partly based on ethnographic records of indigenous groups from across the northern hemisphere. For example, many northern people, who have an animistic understanding of their world, strongly believe that animals, plants and inanimate objects possess souls.
Using stable isotope analysis, researchers determined that dog and human diets were the same. In comparison, a wolf found buried in the same area had foraged on large game, a diet different than that of local people. Some dogs were buried with artifacts the dog would have used or been familiar with during its life: a decorative collar-like pendant made with red-deer teeth, a round ball-like stone, spoons, antlers and other implements.