Oldest Known Canine Burial Shows That Dogs Have Always Been Good Boys And Girls

The Bonn-Oberkassel from Germany is the oldest known dog burial. Janssens et al. 2018

When we first started living with dogs is a hard moment in history to pinpoint. It looks likely that by 30,000 years ago we had some form of relationship with the animals, though the nature of this relationship is of much debate. New evidence, however, suggests that even by 14,200 years ago, people were loving and caring for their pet pooches.

Researchers have taken a new look at an old dog, and realized that the fossil might just tell us more about our ancient relationship with canines than we thought. The Bonn-Oberkassel remains, discovered in Germany about a century ago and dating to 14,200 years old, are already notable for a number of reasons.

The initial dog fossil was found buried alongside two human skeletons, one of a man who was likely in his 40s when he died and the other a woman in her 20s. This means that the Bonn-Oberkassel bones are the earliest known deliberate burial of a domestic dog, presumably alongside its owners. But it also turns out that the grave contains the remains of a second canine, making this also the only known dog burial that contains two pooches.

The owners of the Bonn-Oberkassel dogs would have been hunter-gatherers, living a nomadic lifestyle in central Europe. They would likely have followed the migrating herds of reindeer and mammoths through the boreal forests and across grassy plains, using their dogs to help chase down their quarry. Most people have therefore viewed that early relationship between man and dog as one motivated out of a utilitarian reasoning.

But a reanalysis of the Bonn-Oberkassel fossil, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is adding to a brewing doubt of this viewpoint. Despite only being a puppy when it died, it shows signs that it had experienced a tough beginning, and that humans likely cared for it through sickness. This, the researchers argue, provides evidence that these hunter-gatherers of Germany were not only seeing their dogs as a resource but caring for them as pets.

The inside of the mouth and teeth shows that the young pup most likely suffered severe morbillivirus infection, or canine distemper, between the ages of 19 and 23 weeks, with the illness reemerging at least three times over this period.   

“The first infection would be enough to be lethal to most dogs in the wild,” Luc Janssens, who co-authored the study, told New Scientist. “Then came two extra bouts, and the probability that the animal would survive without human help is very, very low.”

During the times when the dog was ill, it would not have been of any use to those humans caring for it, and most likely would have had diarrhea and vomiting. Even once it had recovered, it was unlikely to have been much of a working dog. This, the researchers argue, shows that the animal may well have been kept as a pet, and probably loved as one too.

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