Dogs Were a Prehistoric Woman's Best Friend, Too

Women and dogs were so close 8,000 years ago that they ate the same foods, suffered from the same illness and were buried in the same cemetery.

Women in a forested area 8,000 years ago were not only in close contact with dogs, but they were also eating the same food the dogs ate and suffering from one or more illnesses the dogs had.

A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals that dogs weren't just prehistoric man's best friend. At least some women during the Early Neolithic period, and likely their children too, also lived very canine-centric lives.

"It is possible that females were more involved in caring for the dogs -- possibly more often the ones who fed them, organized living quarters for them, and cleaned up after them," lead author Andrea Waters-Rist told Discovery News.

Waters-Rist, a Leiden University archaeologist, added: "One can envision a camp in the boreal forest with people and dogs living side by side, and dogs being used in many everyday tasks, with dogs being as important to the group as they are to many people today."

Waters-Rist and her team analyzed remains from two 8,000-year-old cemeteries near Lake Baikal, Siberia. The researchers determined that women from both cemeteries had, at some point in their lives, suffered from a parasitic infection called hydatid disease, or echinococcosis.

"It's been recognized for centuries -- mentioned in ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish texts -- and in modern times it is a relatively common infection in Northern Eurasian reindeer herders who use dogs to help with herding, and in indigenous Alaskan groups reliant on sled dogs," Waters-Rist explained.

Cysts from the parasites, which look like calcified, egg-like objects, were found in the abdomens of the women. The researchers suspect that the cysts were probably growing in the liver of each person.

Echinococcosis in humans almost always occurs as a result of direct contact with dogs. People can also get it after ingesting food or water that has been contaminated by dog feces that contain the parasitic eggs.

"As these cysts take many years to form and may not have always preserved," Waters-Rist said, "it suggests that many more people were likely infected. So it is a piece of the puzzle in our reconstruction of the importance of dogs in the lives of ancient peoples."

Robert Losey, a University of Alberta anthropologist, told Discovery News that he previously documented "intentional burial of dogs and wolves" at the same Siberian cemeteries.

"These dogs were much like modern Siberian huskies," Losey said. "Upon their deaths, they were carefully placed in graves just like the human dead."

Some dogs in the Siberian cemeteries were buried with implements such as spoons and stone knives. One dog was even interred wearing a necklace.

The people living at the site appear to have been hunter-gatherers who fished for both their own supper and that of their dogs. The scientists know the dogs and people were eating similar diets based on chemical analysis of their bones.

Dogs and humans at other locations worldwide could have been equally close during prehistoric times, but proof of such connections can be harder to find where populations were low. Losey explained that dog burials tend to be more common finds in areas where diets were rich in aquatic foods, because such spots generally had denser human populations.

The Siberian dog burials strongly suggest that the canines were valued for more than just their hunting, guarding, and other probable work efforts.

"Altogether, several lines of evidence -- the intentional burial of dogs in cemeteries, their similar diets, and now a shared disease -- demonstrate that these ancient Siberian foragers likely had close physical and emotional ties with their domesticated dogs," Waters-Rist said.

A pointer named “Major” is identified as the first known example of a modern dog. A description of the dog was found in a now-obscure 1865 edition of a Victorian journal called The Field. It marks the earliest reported dog breed based on physical form and pedigree. “The invention of ‘breed,’ physically and imaginatively, still shapes how we see and think about dogs today,” Michael Worboys, Director of the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, told Discovery News. Worboys and his team found the information concerning “Major” while preparing a new museum exhibit on dogs.

The first domestication of dogs was thought to have taken place 31,680 years ago -- but new research suggests the skull in question likely belong to a wolf. This particular specimen was found with a still-visible mammoth bone in its mouth.

The paleolithic dog remains resembled a modern Siberian husky, but suggest an animals that was significantly larger. Today, the Siberian husky, Samoyed and Alaskan malamute breeds are all closely related. "The most remarkable difference between these dogs and recent dog breeds is the size of the teeth,” paleontologist Mietje Germonpré said. Other early dog breeds, with a focus on the U.K., are featured in the museum exhibit curated by Worboys and his team. Entitled “Breed: The British and Their Dogs,” the exhibit runs at the University of Manchester museum through April 14.

Another team of researchers, led by Heidi Parker of the National Human Genome Research Institute, used DNA analysis to determine the genetic relationships of numerous dog breeds. One such ancient breed is the Afghan hound. As its name suggests, it's native to the Middle East. It’s one of the oldest dog breeds in existence, and was originally used for hunting hares and gazelles.

Parker and her team found that Akitas are yet another ancient breed. These dogs originated in Asia and are genetically similar to chow chows. The breed was not included in the first dog show. “The first dog show was in 1859 when only two varieties were shown: pointers and setters,” Worboys said. It had nothing to do with the handsome Akita’s looks, as he explained that the first dog show was “for gun dogs only.”

The sleek-bodied saluki comes from Iran, where its distant ancestors might have once lived near the earliest farmers from the Fertile Crescent. Dogs in this region evolved the ability to eat a starch-rich diet around 12,000 years ago. “Our findings show that it was crucial to early dogs to be able to thrive on a diet rich in starch,” Uppsala University’s Erik Axelsson, who led a related study, told Discovery News. “That indicates that dog domestication may be linked to the development of agriculture. It is possible that dogs may have been domesticated independently at locations where agriculture developed early, such as the Fertile Crescent and China.”

One of the most ancient dog breeds native to the United States is the Alaskan malamute. The DNA study found that they are genetically similar to Siberian huskies. This large, muscular dog was used -- and still is -- for pulling sleds, hauling freight by other means, and for additional work tasks.

The basenji is “an ancient African breed,” according to Parker and her colleagues. While “Major” the pointer is the first documented modern breed of dog, the basenji is arguably the first dog to be heavily bred by humans. Although this dog hails from central Africa, paleontologists believe its wolf ancestors originally came from eastern Asia.

In China, the chow chow is affectionately referred to as Songshi Quan, meaning “puffy-lion dog.” It is genetically close to the Akita, also from Asia. It represents yet another early breed.

Of the four most ancient known Asian dog breeds, the shar-pei was the first to diverge from a wolf ancestor, suggesting it is the oldest known Asian breed. This dog is famous for its deep wrinkles and blue-black tongue. Mutations of the same gene that causes wrinkles in these dogs can also cause wrinkling of human skin.