Dogs may have helped ancient Middle Easterners hunt small game

Bones unearthed in Jordan hint the canines weren’t primarily used to target big game

canine bones

DOG HUNTERS  Fragmentary canine bones unearthed at a Jordanian site suggest that pooch-aided hunting of small prey such as hares began around 11,500 years ago, scientists say.

L. Yeomans

Dogs that lived alongside Middle Eastern villagers roughly 11,500 years ago may have helped to transform how those humans hunted, researchers say.

Fragmentary canine bones unearthed at Shubayqa 6, an ancient site in northeastern Jordan, date to a time when remains of hares and other small prey at the outpost sharply increased, say zooarchaeologist Lisa Yeomans of the University of Copenhagen and her colleagues. Many animal bones from Shubayqa 6 also display damage caused by having been swallowed by dogs and then passed through their digestive tracts, the scientists report in the March Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

“The use of dogs for hunting small, fast prey such as hares and foxes, perhaps by driving them into enclosures, could explain the evidence at Shubayqa 6,” Yeomans says.

The bone fragments challenge a long-standing idea that, in the early stages of domestication, dogs were first used to hunt large animals that yielded lots of meat per kill, she says. In that scenario, population growth and climate fluctuations led to food shortages for foraging groups. People seeking a wider array of plants and animals in their diet then incorporated dogs into small-game hunts too. That dietary shift heralded the rise of farming, researchers have suggested.

But no signs of food shortages have been found at Shubayqa 6. People who lived there starting around 11,500 years ago must have enjoyed a consistent supply of gazelles, hares, foxes and game birds, the researchers say. Dogs may have enabled humans at the site to devise new ways to hunt small game effectively enough to forgo large-animal hunts altogether, Yeomans’ team argues.

Clues to that diet, and to the site’s year-round occupation by those humans, include numerous structures built over roughly 1,000 years and located near garbage deposits containing a variety of animal bones. The researchers identified 55 dog bones among a total of more than 3,800 mammal bones excavated at Shubayqa 6. Recovered canine remains are too fragmentary to assign them to a species.

GAME TIME Excavations of ancient stone structures such as this at Jordan’s Shubayqa 6 site are offering new insight into dog domestication in the Middle East. Univ. of Copenhagen

The investigators suspect that people allowed their four-legged hunting assistants to scarf bony scraps at butchery spots. Dogs would then have left behind digested bone chunks in their poop.

The findings offer new insight into dog domestication in the Middle East. Scientists commonly assume that dogs were domesticated in the region by Natufians, the first known society to inhabit settlements year-round, between around 15,000 and 11,500 years ago (SN: 9/25/10, p. 14). But archaeological support for Natufian dog taming is scanty.

The new research “provides the best early evidence” of dog domestication in Mediterranean parts of the Middle East, shortly after Natufian society disappeared, says zooarchaeologist Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, who did not participate in the new research.

Dogs and perhaps some other tools for catching small game, such as nets and snares, may have emerged after ancient Middle Easterners started hunting and eating those animals, rather than causing that shift in diet, Munro says. At Shubayqa 6, for instance, the new report indicates that Natufians hunted hares and foxes for perhaps 1,000 years before dogs appeared at the site.

Natufians likely used nets to trap hares, reflected in a high proportion of young, easier-to-catch animals found in Natufian-era sediment at Shubayqa 6, Yeomans says. But around 11,500 years ago, in the wake of the recently departed Natufians, remains of harder-to-catch adult hares became common at the site. Dogs likely aided in the capture of adult hares that had the meatiest payoffs for hunters, she contends.

Two present-day foraging groups in Nicaragua may offer insights into how ancient Middle Easterners used dogs to capture small prey. Mayangna and Miskito people now inhabiting a Nicaraguan rainforest hunt ground-dwelling rodents called pacas that stay in underground burrows during the day. Dogs sniff out pacas’ homes and alert hunters to the rodents’ locations, says anthropologist Jeremy Koster of the University of Cincinnati, who has studied these foragers.

Because hares live in aboveground nests, “there may have been a similar dynamic in ancient Jordan where dogs were valuable primarily for locating hares, not chasing them down,” Koster says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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