Do the Eyes Have It?
Dog domestication may have helped humans thrive while Neandertals declined
Skulls and Souls
Until 2009, dogs were believed to have been domesticated about 17,000 years ago, long after Neandertals were already extinct. But then Mietje Germonpré of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and her colleagues developed a rigorous statistical method for identifying which fossil canid skulls belonged to wolves and which to dogs—the latter distinguished by their shorter, broader snouts and braincases. As I described in an earlier Marginalia column (“The Woof at the Door,” July–August 2009) the team used this technique to identify three Paleolithic skulls as domestic dogs. The earliest was from the Belgian cave of Goyet and dated to about 32,000 years ago.
Some critics of that study pointed to the long, 15,000-year interlude between those early dog skulls and the next oldest confirmed specimens. But recent discoveries have begun to fill the gap and lend credence to the ancient association between humans and large canids. In early 2012, Germonpré’s team published a study of nine additional canid skulls, three of which represented ancient dogs from Předmostí in the Czech Republic, a site dated to about 27,000 years ago. Another canid skull with many doglike features was recently studied by Nikolai Ovodov, of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and his team. It comes from Razboinichya Cave, Siberia, and is dated to about 29,000 years ago. Although this team did not use the same powerful statistical techniques as Germonpré’s group, they identified the Razboinichya skull as an “incipient dog”—an animal in an early stage of the domestication process.
None of these ancient dog skulls date exactly to the period of modern human–Neandertal overlap, but the domestication process must have been underway even before the first identifiable dog entered the fossil record. The rapidly developing consensus is that dogs were domesticated during the period when both modern humans and Neandertals lived in Europe. So far, all of these early dogs are from modern-human sites. Several lines of evidence suggest that dogs and wolves were especially revered by those humans.
One of the Předmostí dogs was found with its jaw and cranium still attached to each other in a lifelike position and with a large piece of bone wedged in its mouth. The bone must have been inserted shortly after the dog’s death, while muscles and ligaments still held the jaw to the cranium. The team suggests that in the past, as now, valued hunting dogs were honored and perhaps buried with ritual.
Another indicator of the importance of dogs was that two canine teeth from dogs or wolves at Předmostí were modified to be worn as personal adornments. Rarely did Paleolithic people make jewelry out of parts of food animals, so the high frequency of canid teeth drilled for use as pendants at Předmostí and other Paleolithic sites indicates that they were not considered food. Like humans, canids are very rarely depicted in Paleolithic cave art, also suggesting that the cave artists might have regarded canids as unusually close to humans.
There is something else odd about the early canid skulls: Forty percent of the 20 dog and wolf crania found at Předmostí have been pierced. Citing evidence from northern hunting peoples around the world who ceremonially open the braincases of slain carnivores, Germonpré and her colleagues surmise that the perforation of the Paleolithic dog skulls may have had a ritual significance. “At Předmostí,” the team wrote,
the large number of perforated braincases of large canids and the dog skull holding a bone between its front teeth hint at a specific relationship between humans and large canids, including the possibility of the existence of a wolf/dog ritual that could be connected with the sending of souls.