These days, besotted dog owners photograph their pooches’ every move, posting the images to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago, humans living in what is now Saudi Arabia immortalized their furry buddies in another—perhaps more permanent—way: hundreds of rock carvings.
As David Grimm writes for Science Magazine, these carvings, described recently in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, may be the earliest-known depictions of dogs. Though the images hint the dogs were heading toward domestication, more work is needed to confirm both age and meaning behind the rock art.
For the past three years, Maria Guagnin, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, has been working to catalogue 1400 rock art panels at Shuwaymis and Jubbah, two archaeological sites in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Some 7,000 of the panels' carvings depict interactions between humans and animals, including numerous livestock and at least 349 dogs.
According to the new report, the dogs are often shown helping humans on hunts. They bite at the necks of ibexes and gazelles, form a menacing circle around an equid, and even square off against a lion. Intriguingly, some images appear to show the dogs tethered to their masters’ waists, suggesting that they are leashed—and that “humans mastered the art of training and controlling dogs thousands of years earlier than previously thought,” writes Grimm.
Even so, it is difficult to assign a precise date to rock carvings. Such dates are often confirmed using linked archaeological sites. But “the archaeological record in this region is really spotty,” Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the research, tells Grimm.
Some 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers arrived in the region. The earliest carvings at Shuwaymis and Jubbah, which depict curvaceous women, date to this period. Around 7,000-8,000 years ago, the population transitioned to herding livestock, and carvings of cattle, sheep and goats start to cover the rock art panels. The dog carvings appear just prior to this time. And if researchers’ estimations are correct, the carvings may narrowly predate dog-adorned pottery from Iran, which is at most 8,000 years old and was previously believed to boast the oldest depictions of pups.
Other evidence of dog domestication stretches back tens of thousands of years. A recent study of dogs’ mitochondrial DNA shows that they split from wolves about 40,000 years ago in a single domestication event. Additionally, as Michelle Starr of Science Alert notes, the remains of a dog have been found buried alongside two humans in a 14,700-year-old grave.
But DNA and fossil evidence can provide only limited information about how humans and dogs interacted. The Saudi Arabian rock carvings, by contrast, paint a vivid picture of the two species working together in a vital partnership.
“When Maria came to me with the rock art photos and asked me if they meant anything, I about lost my mind," Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute and a co-author of the study, tells Science. "A million bones won't tell me what these images are telling me. It's the closest thing you're going to get to a YouTube video."
A particularly intriguing feature of the rock carvings lies in the fact that the dogs have been given individual traits. Some have spots, others have white patches on their chests. Some are clearly male and others, presumably, are female. The ancient artists may have simply been trying to convey a “general range of variation in local dogs,” as the authors of the study write. But it is also possible that they were etching specific portraits of dogs that they knew, that helped them survive.