Engravings depicting 13 dogs accompanying what looks to be a hunter may be the oldest known depiction of dogs.
The landscape of Shuwaymis [Photo via Arabian Rock Art Heritage]
Some 8,000 years ago, someone looked at these sandstone cliffs running along the edge of a river in the Arabian Desert and thought to etch an image of a man and his 13 dogs. The man was likely a hunter, given that he was depicted with a bow and arrow. Interestingly, each of the dogs in the carvings had distinct markings, as if to distinguish each one from the rest. And even more remarkably, two of the dogs had lines connecting their necks to the hunter’s waist. These lines seem to suggest that the hunter had two of the dogs surrounding him on a leash.
These findings are “astounding”, says archaeozoologist Melinda Zeder. However, she also cautions that more work is necessary to confirm the exact age and probable meaning of the carvings.
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According to a new study, the carvings may be around 8,000 years old. The carvings were found in an excavation site in Shuwaymis, a region in the northwest of Saudi Arabia. Archaeologists have spent the last three years over 1,400 panels of rock art in Shuwaymis and another region named Jubbah, depicting almost 7,000 humans and animals.
Livestock bones in the area revealed that around 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, the people that lived in Shuwaymis and Jubbah began keeping livestock. It was perhaps around that time that the carvings of cattle were created. Under the carvings of livestock, however, were carvings of early dogs that possibly aided in hunting. There were 156 dog carvings in Shuwaymis and 193 in Jubbah.
The hunter surrounded by his dogs, with two of them attached to him by a leash. [Photo via Arabian Rock Art Heritage]
Though these are early dogs, the physical characteristics in the carvings showed that these dogs were likely already domesticated. All the dogs were medium-sized and had short snouts, curled tails, and pricked ears. These characteristics indicated that the dogs may have already been domesticated.
Researchers think that the carvings may be 8,000 to 9,000 years old at least. There has already been a discovery of carvings of dogs on some pottery, which were also about 8,000 years old. Thus, if the carvings in Shuwaymis aren’t the oldest carvings of dogs, they may be the oldest carvings of dogs on leashes.
The modern Canaan dog and the carving in Shuwaymis. [Top photo by Alexandra Baranova/Wikimedia Commons; bottom photo by M.Guagnin et al., Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 2017]
The discovery of the carving also redefines what we know of the relationship between dogs and humans. If the carvings do depict what researchers think they depict, then it’s possible that humans had mastered the skill to train dogs thousands of years earlier than originally thought. The hunter in the carvings, after all, seemed to have two dogs on leashes. The other 11 in the carving, however, weren’t on leashes but nonetheless seemed to be under the hunter’s control.
Zooarchaeologist Angela Perri says that the dogs in the hunter carvings look a lot like the Canaan dogs of today. Canaan dogs are a feral breed that has lived in the deserts of the Middle East for thousands of years.
The age of the carvings are still up for debate, and there are those who think that the carvings aren’t as old as researchers say they are. However, in that case, the carvings would still be the oldest ones that depict dogs on leashes.
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