A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
It is commonly thought that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated; it is likely that they resulted from a long-term relationship between humans and wild canines. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from modern wolves and dogs has led biologist Carles Vilà of the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues to propose in a recent issue of the journal Science that dogs and wolves diverged more than 100,000 years ago. This would suggest that wolves and hominids interacted at or near the time of the appearance of anatomically modern humans in Africa and the Middle East. There is, at present, no archaeological evidence for domestication this early. Possibly the oldest skeletal evidence of a special relationship between humans and canines comes from the Natufian site of Ein Mallaha in northern Israel, where the 12,000-year-old articulated bones of a young dog or wolf puppy were found resting beneath the left hand of a human skeleton. The earliest dog burials in North America, about 8,500 years old, are from the Koster site in Illinois. Vilà's claim has also been challenged on genetic grounds. The accuracy of his hypothesis notwithstanding, the notion of early hominids and wolves forming some sort of enduring relationship only adds to the intriguing history of humans and dogs.
In her preface to The Lost History of the Canine Race: Our 15,000 Year Love Affair with Dogs, Mary Elizabeth Thurston notes the growing body of scholarly as well as popular literature concerning dogs. Evidence of our continuing interest in dogs, she says, "reflects our growing appreciation of these animals as a race of thinking, feeling beings with a multifaceted 'culture' born of their interactions with people." She adds, however, that much of the real history of dogs has been lost, that "archaeological and historical sites, artifacts, photographs, personal writings, government documents, and a host of other materials born of our relationships with dogs have been systematically ignored, trivialized, burned, buried, bulldozed, vandalized, and pulverized into garden fertilizer--or, more often than not, simply never been recorded." Thurston then sets out to reconstruct a part of this "lost history."
Marion Schwartz's A History of Dogs in the Early Americas also presents a wealth of information about the association between humans and dogs. In her preface Schwartz writes that during a Yale University class on North American prehistory she became interested in the diversity of dog-human relationships, particularly among the Precolumbian peoples of the Americas. She recalls: "It was as this point that I began to understand that the word dog had many meanings. Dogs were as different as the people they served. What I wanted to understand was how different, and how one species--one nonhuman species at that--could be so many things to so many people." Schwartz concludes: "The history of dogs in the Americas is, ultimately, a success story. Even though American aboriginal dogs have all but disappeared, their legacy remains. It remains in myths and stories, in art, in burial remains, and in the genes of their relatives. Like the people with whom they lived, they form a part of the history of the Americas."
Lynn M. Snyder is a zooarchaeologist in the department of anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.