Were Israel’s Canaan dogs man’s best friends 9,000 years ago?
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Remarkably, the Saudi scenes show dogs leashed to hunters

Were Israel’s Canaan dogs man’s best friends 9,000 years ago?

Rock art in Saudi Arabia showing what appears to be Israel's national breed depicts vivid scenes of man's earliest known use of canines in taking down prey

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Detail photograph of a panel in Saudi Arabia's Shuwaymis west showing a complex stratigraphic sequence with dog engravings and human figures superimposed with multiple cattle. To aid visibility only clearly identifiable engravings of dogs, cattle and human figures were traced. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
    Detail photograph of a panel in Saudi Arabia's Shuwaymis west showing a complex stratigraphic sequence with dog engravings and human figures superimposed with multiple cattle. To aid visibility only clearly identifiable engravings of dogs, cattle and human figures were traced. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
  • A leashed mixed-breed Canaanite dog on a walk in its native desert habitat. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    A leashed mixed-breed Canaanite dog on a walk in its native desert habitat. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Dog depiction in the rock art of Saudi Arabia's Shuwaymis site shows a dog with chest coloration typical for Canaan dogs. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
    Dog depiction in the rock art of Saudi Arabia's Shuwaymis site shows a dog with chest coloration typical for Canaan dogs. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
  • Canaan dog bred at Sha'ar Hagai Kennels (Bar Aharon)
    Canaan dog bred at Sha'ar Hagai Kennels (Bar Aharon)
  • Panel 105 at Shuwaymis in Saudi Arabia, showing a circa 8,000-year-old hunting scene with an equid and its young, surrounded by dogs. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
    Panel 105 at Shuwaymis in Saudi Arabia, showing a circa 8,000-year-old hunting scene with an equid and its young, surrounded by dogs. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
  • From the Saudi Arabian Shuwaymis site, Panel 144, hunting scene with lion and two dogs (a further five dogs are engraved behind the lion, not visible on photograph). 'Hanakiyah tools' are engraved below the belly and above the back of the lion and may represent at type of tool used to butcher or skin animals. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
    From the Saudi Arabian Shuwaymis site, Panel 144, hunting scene with lion and two dogs (a further five dogs are engraved behind the lion, not visible on photograph). 'Hanakiyah tools' are engraved below the belly and above the back of the lion and may represent at type of tool used to butcher or skin animals. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)

Saudi Arabia and Israel may not have formal diplomatic relations today, but some 9,000 years ago there was evidently an open border policy — at least for Israel’s national breed, the Canaan dog.

Hundreds of massive petroglyphs were recently found on huge ruddy rocks in Saudi Arabia’s arid Shuwaymis and Jubbah regions that depict what appear to be Canaan dogs. The earliest depictions of dogs in the archaeological record, they show detailed snapshots of the canines — sometimes leashed — in vivid hunting scenes.

A study, “Pre-Neolithic evidence for dog-assisted hunting strategies in Arabia,” was recently published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. Written by Maria Guagnina, Angela R. Perrib, and Michael D. Petraglia, it gives insight into early hunting strategies in which man’s best friend is thought to have been trained to run down its prey and tire it before a fatal blow is delivered — by dog fangs, or man’s spears and arrows.

Detailed photograph of a panel in Shuwaymis west showing a complex stratigraphic sequence with dog engravings and human figures superimposed with multiple cattle. To aid visibility only clearly identifiable engravings of dogs, cattle and human figures were traced. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)

In Saudi Arabia, Shuwaymis is located on the northern edge of lava fields in a wadi that is flanked with sandstone escarpments. Even 9,000 years ago, habitation would have been a challenge. Jubbah, on the other hand, is marked by paleolakes and the types of animal depictions point to a humid, slightly cooler climate for this time.

“The hunting dog depictions at Shuwaymis and Jubbah represent the earliest evidence of dogs on the Arabian Peninsula, predating the first faunal evidence of dogs by thousands of years,” according to the study.

Prior to this new Saudi find, the earliest images of dogs were uncovered on pottery shards in Iran dated to around 6,000 BCE. Paintings of Canaan dogs were also found in Egypt’s Beni-Hassan temple from circa 2,200 BCE.

What is unprecedented in many of the new Saudi scenes is that the dogs appear to be leashed to the hunters. “The leashes appear to be tethered to the waist of the hunters, leaving their hands free for the bow and arrow. Some hunters have an individual dog leashed to them and others have multiple,” write the authors.

These tethers, the scientists claim, demonstrate “how early Holocene hunters controlled their dogs, potentially utilizing different dogs for different tasks.”

“This suggests complex dog-assisted hunting strategies on the Arabian Peninsula began in the Pre-Neolithic,” reads the study. “Dogs may be leashed to, for example, protect valuable scent dogs from being injured or to keep dogs near a hunter for protection. They may also represent young dogs being trained to hunt or older dogs more susceptible to injury.”

Myrna Shiboleth and her dog Habibi in Italy, 2017 (Courtesy)

Foremost Canaan dog expert Myrna Shiboleth is skeptical that hunters 9,000 years ago were able to “control” their dogs.

“Complex hunting strategies?” wondered Shiboleth, the author of “The Israel Canaan Dog,” quoting the recent study in an email to The Times of Israel this week. “I don’t think they had any idea of complex dog training. [The hunters] made use of the natural instincts of the dogs to hunt, and turned them loose to hunt and catch game or to track and find game, and they followed.”

Shiboleth concurred that the use of leashes would have increased the hunters’ control over their four-legged hunting friends.

“Dogs are not robots, they are dogs. Just as you can’t depend on a small child to always listen to what you tell him, the same is true of a dog, and if you want to keep him from interfering at some point in the hunt or whatever, you would keep him leashed,” she wrote.

A leashed mixed-breed Canaan dog on a walk in its native desert habitat. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

There are only between 2,000-5,000 purebred Canaan dogs in the world today, with approximately 1,000 in Israel. However, most of the country’s wild dogs, and the majority of the dogs found in shelters are mixed with the breed.

The Canaan dog was first recognized in Israel as a registered breed in 1965; the American Kennel Society followed suit in 1997. According to the AKS, it has few genetic or health problems and its breed standards include easy training, alertness, vigilance, devotion and docility with family, but reservation and aloofness with strangers. It is characterized as being highly territorial, very vocal, and can suffer from shyness or dominance toward people.

All of the hundreds of etched dogs found in the two Saudi sites, write the study’s authors, “display characteristic pricked ears, short snouts, deeply-angled chests, and a curled tail, appearing to be of the same ‘type.'” … We suggest these canids bear a close resemblance to the modern Canaan dog,” write the authors.

In previous conversations with The Times of Israel, Shiboleth has described the Canaan breed as being more in a partnership with humans, rather than in a typical master-servant relationship.

“Put it this way: If you go to the edge of a cliff with a German shepherd and tell it to jump, it’ll jump. If you go to the edge of a cliff with a Canaan dog and tell it to jump, it’ll turn to you and say, ‘You first,'” she said.

Where are the Canaan dogs from and how did they get there?

The scientists are not certain whether the petroglyphs depict Canaan dogs originating in the Levant. There is also the possibility that the dogs depicted in the petroglyphs are ancestors to the modern Canaan breed, but originated in Arabia and moved to Israel at a later period and not vice versa, write the authors.

“It is unclear if the Shuwaymis and Jubbah dog depictions represent non-local dogs (e.g., from the Levant) or a localized domestication on the Arabian Peninsula,” write the authors of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology study.

Dog depiction in the rock art of Saudi Arabia’s Shuwaymis site shows a dog with chest coloration typical for Canaan dogs. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)

“The Arabian Peninsula dog depictions and modern Canaan dogs may represent a case of convergent evolution; or two unrelated groups of dogs adapted to harsh, arid environments,” suggests the study.

According to a 2015 Nature article, dogs were first domesticated in southern East Asia 33,000 years ago. A fossilized skull of one semi-domesticated pet dog was found in Russia in 2011.

“We find that dogs from southern East Asia have significantly higher genetic diversity compared to other populations, and are the most basal group relating to gray wolves, indicating an ancient origin of domestic dogs in southern East Asia 33,000 years ago. Around 15,000 years ago, a subset of ancestral dogs started migrating to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, arriving in Europe at about 10,000 years ago,” according to the 2015 article.

1978 Nature article shows evidence for domestication of the dog 12,000 years ago in Israel. The Saudi rock carvings are dated to circa 9,000 years ago, which also is well after canine migration to the region.

A very unInstagram

The rock art would have taken considerable time to produce, say scientists.

Section of Panel 82 in Shuwaymis showing two ibex (center and left) being attacked by eight dogs. One of the ibex appears to be held by a tether. A third ibex (right) was added to the scene at a later point. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)

“Chiseling stone is time-consuming and labor-intensive, so the effort would have had meaning behind it… Therefore, the subjects the artists deemed important enough to record in such a lasting medium are the very things that archaeologists consider to be of great interest,” according to the website, Arabian Rock Art Heritage, which provides information about a detailed project tasked with documenting the Saudi petroglyphs.

The petroglyphs found at Shuwaymis and Jubbah depict graphic scenes of canines locked in death grips on the necks of ibex and gazelle, which appear to often be nursing mothers or older stock. The scientists believe the dogs were also used for their ability to instinctually chose the easier prize.

What is clear is that the scenes are evocative.

“It’s a little bit heart wrenching, the equids are usually mothers with their young being attacked,” said Guagnin, who over the past three years has analyzed over 1,400 panels of petroglyphs, to The New York Times. “It’s quite interesting to see these scenes with the dying animals and there are dogs hanging off them.”

Panel 105 at Shuwaymis in Saudi Arabia, showing a circa 8,000-year-old hunting scene with an equid and its young, surrounded by dogs. (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)

Gaugin shared the scenes with a colleague at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist.

“When Maria came to me with the rock art photos and asked me if they meant anything, I about lost my mind,” Perri told Science magazine. “A million bones won’t tell me what these images are telling me… It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to a YouTube video.”

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