21 December 2017
Prehistoric dogs on leashes depicted on Saudi Arabian rock art
At the edge of a bygone river in the Arabian Desert, a hunter stands watch with his 13 dogs, aiming his bow at a kill. Two of the dogs have lines running from the man's waist and all of the dogs have their own coat marking.
The engravings have been dated back more than 8000 years ago, making them possibly the earliest depictions of dogs, according to a new study. The lines are possibly leashes, which suggest humans trained and controlled dogs thousands of years earlier than previously assumed. "It's truly astounding stuff," says Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. "It's the only real demonstration we have of humans using early dogs to hunt." However, more evidence is needed to confirm the age and meaning of the depictions.
The area the hunting scene is located in is Shuwaymis, a hilly region of the Northwestern Saudi Arabia where the season rains once supported dense vegetation. Maria Guagnin, archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, working in partnership with the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage, has worked for the past 3 years cataloging more than 1400 rock art panels that contain nearly 7000 animals and humans at the Shuwaymis and Jubbah, a vista that lies about 200 km north.
About 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers came to this region, coinciding with the oldest images at the site that depict curvy women. About 7,000 to 8,000 years ago the people in the region became herders, based on finds of livestock bones, which coincides with the appearance of the depictions of livestock. In between these two depiction layers, the early hunting dog appears, 156 at Shuwaymis and 193 at Jubbah. Some of these dogs are depicted as facing off against wild donkeys, biting necks and bellies of ibexes and gazelles, as well as many tethered to humans with a bow and arrow. While the images could not date the images of the dogs directly, it has been suggested they are between 8,000 to 9,000 year olds.
"When Maria came to me with the rock art photos and asked me if they meant anything, I about lost my mind," says co-author Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
While the images could be much younger, the leashes are certainly the oldest on record, with the earliest records coming from Egyptian paintings dated to 5,500 years ago, according to Perri. However, other researchers caution that it could be purely symbolic. Paul Tacon, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Gold Coast, Australia, says: "It could just be a depiction of a bond. Either way that bond was clearly strong, as the artists appear to have depicted dogs they actually knew, with particular coat patterns, stances, and genders. These creatures were very important, beloved companions."
Edited from Science Direct (October 2017), Science Magazine (16 November 2016)