It seems to many that we have loved dogs since time immemorial – at least since they were artificially bred out of wolves. Today, they have their own Instagram pages, YouTube hits, and Twitter feeds and you can barely go a day without seeing a dog do something cute online.
A new study reveals we’ve been doing this in some form for 8,000 or 9,000 years. Writing in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, a team has announced the discovery of sandstone engravings of a pack of dogs, some held back by leashes, on the Arabian Peninsula.
Found at excavation sites Shuwaymis and Jubbah, in the northwestern sector of Saudi Arabia, they’re likely to be the oldest images of dogs in human history – or at least as old as the previous record holder, a collection of Iranian pottery. At the very least, they’re the oldest images of dogs on leashes ever discovered.
The team, comprised of researchers from the Max Planck Institutes for the Science of Human History and for Evolutionary Anthropology, explain that the carvings reveal that humanity achieved mastery of dog domestication millennia earlier than anyone had previously thought.
The large groups of dogs, all being led by people, appear to be involved in a variety of tasks. At least 147 separate scenes involve hunting in a range of environments, which appear to be depicted in various seasons. In several images, dogs seem to be chasing something down while a man locks and draws a bow.
Some dogs are on leashes, as aforementioned; others are not, which implies the owners had a great deal of control over them no matter how physically free they were. The sheer number of them suggests a controlled breeding program was in operation at the time.
The dogs resemble the modern Canaan breed, which is known to have emerged from the Middle East thousands of years ago. They are still often found as feral dogs roaming the desert in search of food. Ancient cemeteries in the region suggest that they were extremely important to those who lived in prehistory, and they may at one point have been revered as sacred animals.
Dogs were likely first domesticated in Europe, between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. People first began to settle in the Arabian Peninsula around 10,000 years ago, and it appears that, based on this new evidence, regional domestication of these feral dogs happened extremely quickly.
One word of warning though: the dating was indirectly determined, based on the weathering of the rock and the nearby archaeological evidence. So it could be that the carvings are somewhat younger, or perhaps older, than the current estimate.