Did Bronze Age Europeans Keep Foxes As Pets?

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Dogs may have firmly established their role as man's best friend but new evidence published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences suggests their Bronze Age ancestors faced some competition – in the form of the nifty and more mischevious common fox, aka Vulpes vulpes.

Archaeologists digging at Can Roqueta (Barcelona) and Minferri (Lleida) in the Iberian Peninsula discovered the remains of four foxes amongst a total of 64 human burials. Also present at the sites were the bones of a wolf, 32 dogs, and 19 hoofed mammals, revealing a funeral practice common to the early to late Bronze Age of burying the dead alongside domesticated animals.

In one grave, for example, archaeologists found the body of an old man next to the skeleton of a single cow and the legs of several goats. In another, an individual (potentially female) laid to rest by the bodies of two dogs and two cows. And in a third, the bones of a young woman accompanied by two foxes, a goat, and a bovine horn. 

By analyzing carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the bone collagen, the team was able to deduce the diets of the animals and their owners. They found that the diet of the dogs more closely resembled that of the humans than did the diets of the other mammals. 

The results also suggest that Bronze Aged men had a more carnivorous diet than women. The food eaten by dogs appears to be more similar to that eaten by women and children, possibly because they were the beneficiaries of human leftovers. This may imply that dogs were more closely linked to the domestic environments of women and children, study co-author Aurora Grandal-d'Anglade explained.

The analysis reveals some of the bigger dogs (and at least one of the foxes) had a diet that was especially rich in cereals – potentially because of their assignment as carriers.

"These specimens also show signs of disorders in the spinal column linked to the transport of heavy objects," study co-author Silvia Albizuri Canadell, an archaeozoologist at the University of Barcelona, said in a statement

"Humans were probably looking for a high-carbohydrate diet because the animals developed a more active job, which required immediate calorie expenditure."

As for the foxes, the results expose a varied diet that sometimes looked akin to those of the dogs but at other times appeared closer to that of a wild animal. One, found in Can Roqueta, even had a diet similar to that of a puppy dog. 

"The case of the Can Roqueta fox is very special, because it is an old animal, with a broken leg," Grandal-d'Anglade continued. "The fracture is still in its healing process, and shows signs of having been immobilized (cured) by humans.

"We interpret it as a domestic animal that lived for a long time with humans."

However, it's safe to say today's pups don't have to fear foxes taking their place as man's best friend anytime soon.

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