Did Ancient South Americans Keep Foxes as Pets?

At a cemetery in Argentina, a 1,500-year-old fox buried alongside humans suggests a “close relationship” between the species, researchers say

Fox art
The nearly complete skeleton has been identified as a member of an extinct fox species, Dusicyon avus, which once roamed Patagonia’s grasslands. Juandertal via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Over a millennium ago, an ancient society of hunter-gatherers in Argentina’s Patagonia region buried one of its members in a small cemetery. In the same grave, they interred an animal—a fox—which archaeologists think was a member of a now-extinct species once kept as pets.

In a study published this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science, researchers detailed their reexamination of the bones found at the Cañada Seca burial site in central Argentina. Discovered in 1991, the cemetery is about 1,500 years old. The site contains remains from at least 24 adults and children, stone tools, beads, lip piercings—and the skeleton of a fox, intentionally buried alongside one of the dead.

“It probably had some sort of deep relationship with the hunter-gatherer society and that individual in particular,” co-author Ophélie Lebrasseur, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Oxford, tells Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe. She adds that the ancient burial is only the second of its kind to be found in South America.

Initially, Cañada Seca’s four-legged skeleton was identified as a Lycalopex, a genus of South American foxes that still roam the continent today, reports the New York Times’ Jack Tamisiea. However, according to the new analysis, the animal actually belongs to the extinct fox species Dusicyon avus. About the size of a German shepherd and resembling a jackal, D. avus roamed Patagonia’s grasslands from the late Ice Age until about 500 years ago.

The Cañada Seca burial site (indicated by the red star) is located in Argentina's Patagonia region. Royal Society Open Science

Researchers reached this conclusion after studying ancient DNA and analyzing isotopes found in the fox’s remains. As the Times reports, the team ground down samples of the buried animal’s forearm and vertebrae to examine genetic material inside.

This study also sheds new light on the fox’s relationship with its fellow humans. By carbon dating the bones, researchers found that the fox was buried around the same time as the humans discovered nearby. Additionally, isotopic signatures in the fox’s teeth suggest that it ate not only meat—as wild foxes would have—but plants. As Lebrasseur tells Live Science, the fox was eating the same substances as the human it was interred beside.

According to the team, the evidence suggests the fox was a tamed member of Cañada Seca’s human community. As Aurora Grandal-d’Anglade, a zooarchaeologist at Spain’s University of A Coruña who wasn’t involved in the study, tells the Times, “An animal that eats like humans and is buried like them must surely have had a close relationship with them.”

The researchers have also gained new insights into the foxes’ eventual extinction, which occurred about 500 years ago. Previously, some scientists had hypothesized that interbreeding between foxes and domesticated dogs could have gradually weakened the foxes’ genetic influence on successive generations.

“Our genetic divergence analysis suggests that this is unlikely,” write the researchers. In other words, domestic dogs and foxes were likely so different that they could not produce viable offspring. The team thinks these foxes went extinct for other reasons, such as environmental changes.

Researchers studied the fox's skeleton to learn more about its diet and genetics. Francisco Prevosti / Royal Society Open Science

Foxes likely held “symbolic significance” for ancient humans across the region, as fox teeth have been found in other burial sites throughout Argentina and Peru, writes BBC News’s Helen Briggs. Still, discovering a nearly complete fox skeleton in a human grave is extremely rare.

“The most plausible explanation is that this fox was a valuable companion to the hunter-gatherer groups,” write the researchers. “Its strong bond with human individuals during its life would have been the primary factor for its placement as a grave good after the death of its owners or the people with whom it interacted.”

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