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Dogs in the Palaeolithic

I'm trying to post more often, which means some shorter bits now and then when I spot something cool or have a bizarre thought tangent.
So- a genetics paper has just been published that apparently confirms an early Upper Palaeolithic dog from Altai, Siberia, as more closely related to prehistoric New World dogs and modern domestic dogs than to wolves of a similar age. This paper is open access, so feel free to check it out. It made me think a bit about what role dogs were playing in regard to Palaeolithic art.

There are already definite dog remains from the Late Upper Palaeolithic, about 14,000 (ka) years ago, and there have been other claimed skeletal examples from Early Upper Palaeolithic sites too, the earliest being c. 36ka in Belgium. mtDNA analysis across modern dogs suggested a place and time for their domestication at around 16ka years ago in China, but more extrnsive nuclear DNA studies suggest a European or Near East origin.The authors of the new mtDNA study are careful to state that theirs is only in the preliminary stages of research, but they are clear that these results point to an older origin of dog domestication outside East Asia or the Middle East.

My thought is that if there is dog domestication early in the Upper Palaeolithic, and it is distributed quite widely in space, where are the dogs in Palaeolithic art? There is one image that looks wolf-like from Font de Gaume, a mid-late Upper Palaeolithic cave in the Dordogne (which I've been lucky enough to visit), but I can't find any photos of this online, only versions of the drawing by Henri Breuil, who is known for sometimes "embellishing" what is visible on the walls. The fantastic Palaeolithic art website Dons Maps suggests that this piece may have faded and been lost until recent restoration work in the cave involved a new survey which found the wolf now existing as an engraving (I hope to return to Font de Gaume when I'm in France, so will check this out).

The Font de Gaume wolf; or is it a dog? Postcard from the cave.
But this wolf is the only thing I can find quickly on the internet and scanning through my books on Ice Age art; compared to the much more frequent representations of lions, as well as some hyaenas, and even a leopard at Chauvet this is striking. Once again, it is a reminder that while people were sometimes creating incredibly realistic images of creatures they were familiar with, such as the Zaraysk bison I saw in person at the British Museum conference a couple of weeks ago, they were choosing to represent only some of the animals, not others. There's been a plethora of theories trying to make a pattern out of the species we do see: are they the same as the bones we find in caves, therefore the animals that were being eaten? No, not really, often there is no clear match between the faunal remains from a cave and the images on a wall; furthermore not all decorated caves were being lived in. Are they featuring mainly animals that were dangerous and therefore somehow held in awe? Again, no, there is a very wide range of species represented overall including carnivores and megafauna like mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and giant deer, but also smaller animals such as reindeer, ibex, birds, fish. And of course, there are very few painted representations of humans in caves, although there are a greater number of engravings and smaller portable sculptures.

It's fascinating to wonder how dogs, now central to billions of people's lives across the world whether as pets, working animals or simply beasts that share their lives within settlements, were regarded during these earliest times when they joined in a new relationship with humanity.


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