31 January 2011
Did early humans domesticate the fox?
Early humans may have preferred the fox to the dog as an animal companion, new archaeological findings suggest. Researchers analysing remains at a prehistoric burial ground in Jordan have uncovered a grave in which a fox was buried with a human, before part of it was then transferred to an adjacent grave. The University of Cambridge-led team believes that the unprecedented case points to some sort of emotional attachment between human and fox. Their paper suggests that the fox may have been kept as a pet and was being buried to accompany its master, or mistress, to the afterlife. If so, it marks the first known burial of its kind and suggests that long before we began to hunt foxes using dogs, our ancestors were keeping them as pets - and doing so earlier than their canine relatives.
The cemetery, at Uyun-al-Hammam, in northern Jordan, is about 16,500 years old, which makes the grave 4,000 years older than the earliest known human-dog burial and 7,000 years earlier than anything similar in Europe involving a fox. The researchers also suggest that this early example of human-animal burial may be part of a bigger picture of growing cultural sophistication that has typically been associated with the farming societies of the Neolithic era, thousands of years later. However, the relationship between man and that particular beast was probably short-lived: it is unlikely that foxes were ever domesticated in full and that, despite their early head start, their recruitment as a friendly household pet fell by the wayside in later millennia as their human masters took to the more companionable dog instead.
"The burial site provides intriguing evidence of a relationship between humans and foxes which pre-dates any comparable example of animal domestication," Dr Lisa Maher, from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, said. "What we appear to have found is a case where a fox was killed and buried with its owner. Later, the grave was reopened for some reason and the human's body was moved. But because the link between the fox and human had been significant, the fox was moved as well, so that the person, or people, would still be accompanied by it in the afterlife."
The research focused on the contents of two particular graves at Uyun-al-Hammam, a representative site of the so-called early Epipalaeolithic period, 16,500 years ago. The archaeologists spotted a connection between Grave I on the site and Grave VIII, which lies beside it but was only opened more recently. In the first, they identified the remains of two adults, probably a man and a woman. The man had been buried earlier than the woman, and alongside him were the skull and humerus of a fox, as well as other grave goods It was only when Grave VIII was opened, however, that the researchers found both human remains that may have belonged to the same man, and the skeletal remnants of what was, almost certainly, the same fox
The movement of the body parts is believed to be highly significant. If the human body is the same in both cases, then none of the other grave goods except the fox were considered worth moving, strongly suggesting that the fox had some sort of special relationship to the human. Other such cases are very rare. Many of the next earliest involve dogs, including one site in Israel where a woman was buried with her hand resting on a puppy, but even they are about 4,000 years younger than Uyun-al-Hammam.
Edited from PhysOrg (27 January 2011), Past Horizons (28 January 2011)