Proof that Dogs Were Our Ancient Hunting Partners

By Claudia Kawczynska, September 2016
Museum replication featuring Jōmon warriors hunting with dogs A recreation of a Jōmon hunt with dogs. Niigata Prefectural Museum of History

Here at The Bark we have long promoted the theory that from the very start of our long relationship with dogs, they were our valuable partners. And, our evolutionary pathways most likely crossed along game trails rather than, as some contend, on ancient garbage mounds. Or as Mark Derr, our former science editor, and author of How the Dog Became the Dog, explained to us, “The premise I start with is that, in many ways, dogs are an evolutionary inevitability. As soon as humans and wolves encountered one another on the game trails, they struck up a relationship, and they’ve been at it ever since.” 

Well, it looks like recent research into prehistoric Japanese graves proves, at least, that dogs were indeed our long-time hunting companions. In this fascinating study written by Angela Perri recently published a fascinating study that proves just this. This line of inquiry started when she was a grad student at Durham University in the UK. As David Grimm writes in Science:

“She wanted to get a sense of how dogs may have aided early humans in taking down game, so she did her best to approximate the activity: In 2011, she joined a group of Japanese businessmen on a wild boar hunt in a dense forest near Hiroshima. ‘It was terrifying,’ says Perri, now a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. ‘The boar sound like a train. They’re very aggressive, and they have big tusks. At any moment, one could come charging at you.’”

But the biggest takeaway she got was just how impressive the dogs were during this hunt. Not only did the 5 Bloodhounds and Shiba Inus help to track down the prey, but they also warned the humans when the boars were nearby.

That got Perri interested in investigating Japanese research papers for anything about dogs and the Jōmon culture—hunter-gatherers from 16,000 to 2,400 year ago. They lived in the northern islands with a cold climate filled with large terrestrial megafauna of the Pleistocene, like Naumann’s elephants and Yabe’s giant deer. But during the Holocene, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, there was a climatic warming displacing the larger animals with smaller, quicker ungulates like sika deer and wild boar. As Perri notes in the Antiquity paper, “This environmental shift … led to the creation of new exploitation niches for Jōmon foragers, including important variations in plant availability, coastal resources and terrestrial prey species.”

Perri’s research has involved studying dogs as “hunting technology,” and as she noted, “A hunting partnership between dogs and humans has long been postulated in the archaeological literature, with some researchers suggesting that such a collaborative alliance was the basis for the initial domestication of dogs. She points out that, “Dogs are an important, and in some cases indispensable, hunting aid for many modern forager groups, as they probably were for foragers in prehistory.” And explains that, “Injured deer often run, leading hunters on long chases, and wild boar can be aggressive and quickly learn to evade capture. Hunting dogs mitigate these factors by tracking blood trails, forcing game into vulnerable positions (e.g. in water) and holding prey until the hunter can make the final kill.”

Perri was familiar with the significance that dogs had with many ancient cultures, and how the ethnographic record has confirmed their importance and the revered status many of the dogs obtained, which often was displayed in the manner they were buried in “remarkably human-esque ways, often with grave goods and markers.”

She performed a comprehensive survey of Japanese archaeological literature, and found that the Honshu Jōmon did bury their canine hunting partners in shell middens, same as they did with humans. And found over 110 canine burials from 39 archaeological sites. “They were treating their dogs the same way they treated their human hunters.” And, “Like people, the dogs (which may have resembled Shiba Inus) were placed singly and appear to have been arranged in particular postures. ‘They looked like they curled up and went to sleep,’ Perri notes. Some had suffered what appeared to be hunting injuries—broken legs and teeth—and many of their bones had healed, suggesting people had taken care of them. Some were also found with grave goods, like shell bracelets and deer antlers.” Their ages ranged from newborn to over 12 years old. While the prehistoric puppies weren’t certainly valued as hunters, she noted that “the ethnographic record shows that puppies in hunter-gatherer groups are often valued for their potential as future hunting partners.”

Along with the burials themselves, Perri found that the “importance of hunting dogs in this region is also demonstrated by the numerous dog-shaped clay figures (dogu), including a set that features a dog barking at three wild boar.” Or, “One Yayoi representation of dogs is found on a ceremonial bronze bell (dotaku) depicting a number of scenes, one of which is a boar surrounded by a hunter and a pack of dogs.” As shown here:

A 2500-year-old bronze bell depicting a Jōmon hunt with dogs. Image courtesy of Tokyo National Museum (http://www.tnm.jp/)

 

Perri concludes that while dogs were an integral part of the ancestral forest hunting culture, once an agricultural subsistence culture took over, the dog burials stopped as well.

As Grimm noted in his article and quotting Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, “it may be a disparity in loyalty. “Humans were a bit of a fair-weather friend—we were not as reliable as they were,” she laughs. “We could do to be a little more doglike.” We couldn’t agree with that sentiment more.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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