Humans have been domesticating dogs for at least 14,000 years, most likely longer, and we’ve been best pals ever since. This tight bond is especially evident in the Neolithic people of the Iberian Peninsula who loved their dogs, quite literally, to death.
Archaeologists have recently excavated a number of 6,000-year-old graves near present-day Barcelona that contain the skeletal remains of at least 26 dogs in total. The unusual collection of remains suggests that the dogs were close companions of their humans. So close, in fact, they were perhaps killed so they could hang out with their owners in the afterlife.
As reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, an analysis of the bones revealed some curious characteristics of the dogs. Anatomical analysis of their bones suggested they were no older than six years old when they died and many were just puppies as young as one year of age. This could have suggested that the dogs were being eaten, however, their bones showed no signs of cut marks or butchering.
“Choosing young animals aged up to one year old suggests there was an intention in the sacrifice. Although we can think it was for human consumption, the fact that these were buried near humans suggests there was an intention and a direct relation with death and the funerary ritual," first author Silvia Albizuri, a researcher at the University of Barcelona, said in a statement.
Furthermore, the dogs appear to have eaten a diet similar to their human companions. Their close proximity to human settlements shows that these hounds were an inseparable part of daily life for Neolithic communities in the Iberian Peninsula. They appear to have been highly regarded and respected animals. It’s also worth noting that the dogs seem to be very similar in terms of physicality, suggesting “a certain control in the breeding” to foster desirable traits.
“These data show a close coexistence between dogs and humans, and probably, a specific preparation of their nutrition, which is clear in the cases of a diet based on vegetables," added researcher Eulàlia Subirà. "They would probably do so to obtain a better control of their tasks on security and to save the time they would have to spend looking for food. This management would explain the homogeneity of the size of the animals.”
As such, it’s believed the dogs might have been sacrificed, most likely so their owners could keep them as companions in the afterlife.
The study concludes, “Perhaps this life relationship eventually turned them into 'companions' in death or symbols in rituals.”