These 6,000-year-old remains found buried alongside humans are believed to bethe earliest example of dog domestication on the Arabian Peninsula. RoyalCommission for AlUla, Discovery and the University of Western Australia

As archeologists in Saudi Arabia excavated an ancient tomb last year, theywere surprised to find the remains of a dog buried alongside humans some 6,000years ago.

“It was an incredibly exhilarating moment,” archaeologist Hugh Thomas says.“Suddenly it dawned on us: Wow, do we have the oldest domesticated dog inArabia?”

The burial placement suggested that the dog was domesticated, Hugh says. Signsof aging and arthritis on the dog’s bones corroborated the theory because wildanimals would not have lived such long lives.

Given how old the tomb was, Thomas suspected he may have found a historicallyearly example of a pet dog. He wanted to use carbon-14 testing to date theremains to see whether he had a discovery on his hands.

Then COVID-19 hit. The team packed their things and rushed out of SaudiArabia, leaving behind a mass of archaeological evidence.

While home in quarantine, Thomas began writing a study about the land surveyand submitted it for publication. The publishers inquired about how old thedog remains were. The best Thomas could provide was a broad estimate based onthe human bones.

Then suddenly, a tiny piece of the dog’s jawbone was extracted from the siteand submitted for carbon-14 testing. It turned out to be the oldestdomesticated dog in the region.

The 6,000-year-old remains aren’t groundbreaking; one of the earliest accountsof dog domestication is from 14,000 years ago in Germany. But this discoverydoes give researchers a clue about ancient life in the region.

“Little facets like this, like a single dog bone being C-14 dated, suddenlybecomes a major part of the story of these people,” Thomas says. “It ties inreally nicely with the rock art that we have in the region showing packs ofdogs used for hunting.”

Thomas’ team combined the bone sample with other types of evidence to get aclearer understanding of history. A big piece of the historical puzzle wasrock art — paintings and etchings on slabs of rock created by people thousandsof years ago.

Archaeologist Maria Guagnin, who specializes in rock art, teamed up withThomas to develop the historical narrative around this now-oldest example ofArabian dog domestication.

“There’s always been this debate,” she says. “How much control did humansactually have over these dogs? Just from bone remains, you can’t really answerthat question. In the rock art, we could see there were leashes, and there wasclear control over dogs. … It was quite a close relationship.”

In addition to leashes, the rock art shows dogs helping with hunting and otherparts of daily life.

“Of course, a bond would grow between these people and the dogs,” Thomas says.“The same way that we have a bond with dogs today.”

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