Carved into a sandstone cliff on the edge of a bygone river in the Arabian Desert, a hunter draws his bow for the kill.
He is accompanied by 13 dogs, each with its own coat markings; two animals have lines running from their necks to the man’s waist.
The engravings likely date back more than 8000 years, making them the earliest depictions of dogs, a new study reveals.
And those lines are probably leashes, suggesting that humans mastered the art of training and controlling dogs thousands of years earlier than previously thought.
“It’s truly astounding stuff,” says Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
“It’s the only real demonstration we have of humans using early dogs to hunt.” But she cautions that more work will be needed to confirm both the age and meaning of the depictions.
The hunting scene comes from Shuwaymis, a hilly region of northwestern Saudi Arabia where seasonal rains once formed rivers and supported pockets of dense vegetation.
For the past 3 years, Maria Guagnin, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany—in partnership with the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage—has helped catalog more than 1400 rock art panels containing nearly 7000 animals and humans at Shuwaymis and Jubbah, a more open vista about 200 kilometers north that was once dotted with lakes.
Starting about 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers entered—or perhaps returned to—the region. What appear to be the oldest images are thought to date to this time and depict curvy women.
Then about 7000 to 8000 years ago, people here became herders, based on livestock bones found at Jubbah; that’s likely when pictures of cattle, sheep, and goats began to dominate the images.
In between—carved on top of the women and under the livestock—are the early hunting dogs: 156 at Shuwaymis and 193 at Jubbah.
All are medium-sized, with pricked up ears, short snouts, and curled tails—hallmarks of domestic canines.
In some scenes, the dogs face off against wild donkeys. In others, they bite the necks and bellies of ibexes and gazelles. And in many, they are tethered to a human armed with a bow and arrow.
The researchers couldn’t directly date the images, but based on the sequence of carving, the weathering of the rock, and the timing of the switch to pastoralism, “The dog art is at least 8000 to 9000 years old,” Guagnin says.
That may edge out depictions of dogs previously labeled the oldest, paintings on Iranian pottery dated to at most 8000 years ago.
The dogs look a lot like today’s Canaan dog, says Perri, a largely feral breed that roams the deserts of the Middle East.
That could indicate that these ancient people bred dogs that had already adapted to hunting in the desert, the team reports this week in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
Or people may even have independently domesticated these dogs from the Arabian wolf long after dogs were domesticated elsewhere, which likely happened sometime between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago.
Such a relationship would have been critical to helping people survive a harsh environment. Dogs could take down gazelles and ibexes too fast for humans, Perri says.
Details of the images also suggest that the ancient hunters tailored their strategies to the landscape, Zeder says. At Shuwaymis, where the dogs may have been used to drive prey into the corners of uneven terrain, the art depicts large packs.
At Jubbah, the images show smaller groups of dogs that may have ambushed prey at watering holes.
“People were able to venture into these inhospitable areas by strategically marshalling dogs to survive,” Zeder says. “And now we’re seeing a real picture of how it happened.”
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