Dogs seem to have been ritually important elements of human funeral practices in parts of Europe that persisted for hundreds of years, starting about 4200BCE, an extensive study of Neolithic graves reveals.
In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Silvia Albizuri from the University of Barcelona, and colleagues detail the remains of dogs found in 26 pit graves unearthed in the Iberian Peninsula, located in the north-eastern corner of Spain and comprising the autonomous region of Catalonia.
The animals are represented by either full or partial skeletons, and appear to have been deliberately placed next to, or near, the human corpses, and, the researchers note, can be regarded as “evidence of the close relationship between these animals and the human communities”.
The funerary dogs examined by Albizuri and her colleagues are by no means isolated examples, nor the earliest known. A study in 2009 identified fossil dogs and wolves at human burial sites in Belgium, Ukraine and Russia, dating to the Paleolithic period.
All up, the association of the dogs with human death, the authors of the latest work suggest, indicates “they probably had an important symbolic role and were clearly different to other animals”.
This was particularly the case, they add, with the graves they studied.
“That a significant number of cases appeared during the Middle Neolithic in Catalonia seems to have something to do with a new ceremonial activity that revolved around the sacrifice of the dog,” they write.
“This practice would last for hundreds of years in different cultural environments.”
Dog skeletons, either partial or complete, were found in all 26 graves. The human occupants comprised men, women and children, indicating that the animals were not specifically associated with people who filled particular dog-related roles – herders, for instance – but held a universal relevance.
The dogs themselves were puppies, or around a year old, when they were interred. The bones showed no marks of butchery or evisceration. In death, the animals appeared to have been deliberately positioned close to, or touching, each corpse.
This, write Albizuri and colleagues, suggests “a direct relationship with the deceased and the ritual”.
Dogs were very likely working animals, deployed to guard and guide herds. Their closeness to humans is further hinted at by isotopic evidence that indicates they shared the same diet.
This, write the authors, is evidence of human dominance, but also of the close bond between people and dogs.
“The control over their diet is evident with the introduction of cereals since the Neolithic, which implies a radical change in their ‘natural’ alimentation,” they state.
However, it would be wrong to imagine that Neolithic people in Catalonia – and further afield, where the same type of burials have been found – regarded dogs in the same way modern sheep farmers do, essentially as working animals.
Seven thousand years ago, the authors suggest, canines were more than simply guard dogs, or even domestic companions.
“The evidence observed in the area of an influence of Pit Grave culture (including the South of France and the North of Italy) confers a symbolic value to the dog,” they write.
“This value is associated in many cosmologies with protection, rebirth and soul guidance and leads to interpreting the deposition of a dog in a tomb as a ritual sacrifice.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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