How Long Have Dogs Been Helping Us Hunt? - Atlas Obscura

How Long Have Dogs Been Helping Us Hunt?

New findings in Jordan indicate that they’ve been assisting us for nearly 12,000 years.

<em>Hunting Dog and Rabbit</em>.
Hunting Dog and Rabbit. Antoine-Louis Barye/CC BY-SA 3.0 FR

In the Near East, humans may have domesticated dogs as many as 14,000 years ago, during the Epipaleolithic period. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it came at great cost to small prey including hare, according to a new study in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

The study, by archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen and University College London, looks at animal bones found in a Neolithic settlement known as Shubayqa 6, established 11,500 years ago, in the Black Desert of northeast Jordan. The bones suggest that the site’s residents were using their dogs to help them hunt, a finding that can help clarify the murky origins of dog domestication. It hasn’t been clear, the researchers write in a release, whether that process was deliberate or accidental, but this new evidence of canine-assisted hunting implies that these Stone Age humans were highly dependent indeed on their dogs.

At Shubayqa 6, the evidence for a hunting partnership between humans and dogs, who would’ve been more similar to wolves at this point than the domesticated canines we know today, is written in the bones themselves. The remains bear “unmistakable signs of having passed through the digestive tract of another animal,” said lead author Lisa Yeomans in the release, and some are larger than anything even the most determined humans could shove down their gullets.

An excavation at Shubayqa 6.
An excavation at Shubayqa 6. Courtesy University of Copenhagen

At the same time, the researchers also found that the remains of small prey—mostly hare, but also some fox—began to appear much more frequently around the time that dogs arrived at Shubayqa 6. The two developments seem linked, as it’s possible that the dogs helped the hunters refine their methods. Before using dogs, the hunters may have relied more heavily on imprecise methods like netting—less effective than setting packs of hungry canines onto a hare’s bushy tail. The researchers also established that people occupied Shubayqa 6 year round, meaning that the dogs wouldn’t have simply been prowling around on their own, and further supporting the theory that humans were intentionally using these dogs to hunt.

Number 6 isn’t the only part of the Shubayqa area in northeast Jordan to bear significant evidence of our developing knack for harvesting food. In July 2018, researchers published their analysis of the oldest bread ever found, at a site known as Shubayqa 1. The crumbs predate the advent of agriculture. Just as the hare remains can change our understanding of the history of canine domestication, the bread offers new insight into the domestication of cereal grains.