Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Beware of Dogs Facing West Volume 53 Number 4, July/August 2000
by Sandra L. Olsen

[image] A ritual dog burial at Botai (Courtesy Sandra L. Olsen) [LARGER IMAGE]

Recent excavations at the Eneolithic (3600-3100 B.C.) settlement of Botai in north-central Kazakhstan have produced the earliest evidence for many ritual practices that are seen thousands of years later in Bronze Age and Iron Age sites on the steppe and documented in religious texts of those periods.

One of these practices involves the possible sacrifice of at least 15 dogs and placement of their bodies in small pits in or near houses. The ritual deposits, each containing between one and six dogs, were discovered in pithouse foundations or just outside their west walls, possibly in doorways. The close association between dogs and houses may reflect the role of dogs as both secular and spiritual guardians.

The Rig-Veda, written around 1000 B.C., refers to dogs as the guardians of the gate into the Afterlife, which lay to the west. This belief may have originated with guard dogs being buried under west-facing thresholds.

There is also a strong connection at Botai between dogs and horses, indicated by the placement of up to six horse skulls in dog burials. Horses and dogs may have been teamed up in hunting.

Botai dogs had the stature and cranial features of the Samoyed breed, which may have originated in this region, although there is no proof that they had a similar long, full coat.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America