Burying Man's Best Friend - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Burying Man's Best Friend November 8, 2006

Dogs and humans have been companions since prehistoric times, although there is some debate about when the genetic break between wolves and dogs occurred and whether humans had any influence in that. Darcy Morey, a zooarchaeologist from the University of Tennessee at Martin, focuses on the archaeological evidence of canine-human companionship, shown most clearly by dog burials. ARCHAEOLOGY spoke with Morey about his research.

(Courtesy Darcy Morey) [LARGER IMAGE]

What does "domesticated" mean? When were dogs first domesticated?
For dogs, I think it's useful to begin with a particular dictionary sense of the term, first. The 2002 Oxford American College Dictionary defines "domestic," the adjective form of the word, as "of or relating to the running of a home or to family relations." Obviously, that definition is used in a different sense, about only people, but I think it gets at the fundamental nature of the human-dog association. It happened first in the vicinity of 15,000 years ago, based on archaeological evidence.

Was there a single domestication or multiple instances?
That's not a fully settled issue, though I think the evidence for more than one domestication event is strongest.

Where is the dog-wolf boundary, and how can you tell from the bones?
It's not always a straightforward distinction, but there are some changes that have occurred, including overall size reduction in dogs, compared to wolves, and some morphological changes that are reflected in the skeleton.

Why are genetic studies misleading when it comes to determining when dogs were domesticated? A recent study suggested the split occurred 75,000 to 100,000 years ago, based on genetics.
They're misleading because they're based on studies of modern animals, and they don't directly evaluate what actually transpired in the past. There's not a shred of actual evidence from 75,000 to 100,00 years ago.

What is the oldest domesticated dog known so far?
The oldest convincing case is Bonn-Oberkassel, in Germany, about 14,000 years old. Not only was the dog buried, it was part of a human double grave.

What is the oldest dog found in the New World? Did dogs come with the first inhabitants of North America?
It's from Danger Cave, in Utah, between 9,000 and 10,000 years old. They came early, but it's not clear it was with the absolutely first people.

Geographically, where do you find ancient dog burials?
Dog burials are documented from every major land mass in the world, except Antarctica.

What research have you done on dogs in the Arctic?
I spent the 1990-1991 academic year as a guest researcher at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum, in Denmark, studying Arctic dogs from Greenland, where I've also done some fieldwork. With a Danish colleague, I published one paper on the earliest dogs there, some 4,500 years old at most. I'm working on aspects of the later dogs in the Arctic now.

What do dog burials tell us about ancient human populations?
They tell us that dogs had a special status among people, on a worldwide basis.

What can we learn by studying dog remains, in terms of diseases shared between dogs and humans or shared responses to similar nutritional intake, such as corn?
I don't know about diseases, though I know there's some work on that, and there have been studies that show that dogs and people, in different regions, shared broadly similar diets. That's been used to confirm the presence of corn agriculture in one context in southeastern North America, where the people were known in general to be doing that, but a specific site didn't have direct evidence. The study was based on bone chemistry, from both human and dog burial remains.

Why do you think humans and dogs formed such a close bond so long ago?
Because they relate to each other as social organisms. That's where the old cliché about the dog as man's best friend comes from.

How have dogs factored into your personal life, and why did you decide to study them?
Dogs have factored into my personal life in a big way. One dog that I had as a graduate student, in the 1980s, figured into a published piece of research I did on the impacts canids have on archaeological patterns by chewing on bones. On a more purely personal front, the same dog was my faithful backpacking partner, carried her own pack, and even went on a backpacking trip with a friend and me to the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. We traveled all the way from Tennessee to get there one summer. This dog has been dead for a good many years now. Another dog, named Jingo, was featured in 1994 in a published photograph, with my wife Beth, in an article on the early evolution of the dog. That article was in the American Scientist. I'm more proud of that published picture than of any other published picture of mine, bar none. This dog died a tragic death just a little more than one year ago. It tore both of us up, and still does.

What are your plans for future research?
I am currently working with a co-author on a paper to try to generate an explanation for just why dogs and people relate so amazingly well. In addition, I'm currently working up a presentation on dogs during the past few hundred years in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic, especially Greenland. That presentation is part of a larger project. I'm developing a book on what I call, as part of its working title, "The Journey of the Dog."

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America