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Archaeological Evidence for Dog Domestication

Double Dog Burial. Image taken from Vellanoweth et al. (2008)

Double Dog Burial. Image taken from Vellanoweth et al. (2008)

Recently there has been a lot of research into the genome of the domestic dog in order to find their origins. (See my other page for a bit of information about this.) Although there is genetic evidence for the domestication of dogs I wanted to try and find some archaeological evidence of this. When searching the literature I found it difficult to find some good examples but I did find a few, and they did vary over both time and location.

A few remains of dog have been discovered dating to the Palaeolithic and Holocene period, although there is little association with human occupation or settlement. For example, dog remains have been found in Siberia dating to 33,000 Before Present (BP), although little size difference exists between the skull found and Palaeolithic wolves. There is also the suggestion that this line of dog did not survive the ice-age and are not a direct lineage to the modern day dog (Ovodov et al. 2011). A study by Germonpré et al. (2009) examined specimens from Belgium, the Ukraine and Ruissa and found that the Belgium dog dated to 31,700BP. However, unlike the Siberian skull this specimen could be distinguished from wolves by its morphology indicating that some form of dog domestication had begun by this time. As mentioned there is no strong evidence for the association with humans at this point in time, however evidence of morphology, and genetic, strongly suggests that there was some form of interaction present.

Skulls of a wolf and dog for comparison. Image taken from Germonpré et al. (2009).

Skulls of a wolf and dog for comparison. Image taken from Germonpré et al. (2009).

Jumping forward a couple thousand years one of the oldest dog remains of this period was found in Europe was in Germany and dated to 14,000 BP. However, it is important to note that this date came from the layer of earth the bone was found in, not of the bone itself. This was because the excavation occurred in the 20th Century when the methodology and techniques were not as advanced as they are today.

Coming even closer in time, to the Mesolithic period the remains of a dog was excavated from Mesolithic sites in the North West of Lisbon in 1880. This specimen included a complete skeleton and was the only animal skeleton which was not fragmented or disarticulated, suggesting it was buried intentionally. Measurements of the bones concluded that they belong to dog rather than wolf due to its small size. The size and complete skeleton adds weight to the conclusion that this animal was associated with humans. However the major indicator is the location of the burial. The remains were found in a Muge shell-midden, a place of disposal implying that there was human activity near-by.

Complete dog skeleton from Portugal. Image taken from Detry & Cardoso (2010).

Complete dog skeleton from Portugal. Image taken from Detry & Cardoso (2010).

The final source comes from a Pleistocene burial from San Nicolas Island, California. In the area of California dog remains have been found in variety of locations surrounding the area of California. In records it was noted that as early as 1602 European travelers noted presence of dog but by the early 1800s dogs exterminated for sheep ranching on the Island of San Nicolas. He paper by Vellanoweth et al. (2008) discusses a double dog burial; excavated in 2006 (see header image). The burial consisted of two female puppies and was thought to be buried in the 13th or 14th Century. This burial, along with the surrounding area, appeared deliberately organised. This was not an isolated event as other dog burials have been found in San Nicolas in midden heaps and in formal burials associated with human cemeteries. This suggests a strong affection and association between dogs and humans by this time.

The domestication of dogs has been a lengthy process with archaeological evidence extending back into the Palaeolithic period. The evidence is spread over time and place, suggesting that this was an important relationship where both species benefited. It is as strong, if not stronger, today with dogs being our faithful companion rather than a hunting or guarding tool. Looking back it can be seen how man and canine worked together to form this amazing bond.


– Detry, C. and J. L. Cardoso (2010). “On some remains of dog (Canis familiaris) from the Mesolithic shell-middens of Muge, Portugal.” Journal of Archaeological Science 37(11): 2762-2774.
– Germonpré, M., M. V. Sablin, et al. (2009). “Fossil dogs and wolves from Palaeolithic sites in Belgium, the Ukraine and Russia: osteometry, ancient DNA and stable isotopes.” Journal of Archaeological Science 36(2): 473-490.
– Ovodov, N. D., S. J. Crockford, et al. (2011). “A 33,000-Year-Old Incipient Dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the Earliest Domestication Disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum.” PLoS ONE 6(7): e22821.
– Vellanoweth, R. L., B. G. Bartelle, et al. (2008). “A double dog burial from San Nicolas Island, California, USA: osteology, context, and significance.” Journal of Archaeological Science 35(12): 3111-3123.






7 thoughts on “Archaeological Evidence for Dog Domestication

  1. Pingback: Archaeological Evidence for Dog Domestication – A Quick Look | Beauty in the Bones

    • Hmmm I’m not to sure to be honest, my past interests and research have only focused on humans so I don’t know a huge amount about burials. My general feeling is that when dog remains are found completely intact and in an area which appears to be specifically arranged it would suggest that they were buried with purpose. Whether this is for sacrifice (which a few papers hint at) or for sentimental resons I’m not sure. I suspect it changed over time as dogs become more associated as pets rather than hunting or guarding campanions?! I would like to think that humans have always had a soft spot for dogs, and value you them more than other domesticated animals – you don’t hear about specific burials for cattle do you!?

      What do you think?


  2. As someone with three rescue dogs, who also believes I learn a good bit about life from my dogs, I would like to think that they were somehow companions who died at some ripe old age together . . . though I realize that is not the reality, in all probability.

    And horses, yes, cattle no!


  3. Pingback: Aztec dog burial site found in Mexico City | Beauty in the Bones

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  5. Pingback: A Brief Look at a DNA Analysis of Ancient Dogs of the Americas | Beauty in the Bones

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