Beneath a slab of limestone in the remains of an ancient circular dwelling on kibbutz Ma'ayan Baruch in northeastern Israel, archeologists a decade ago unearthed a double grave. The aged human skeleton, knees folded against chest and left wrist pillowing its forehead, lay with a hand upon the thorax of the remains of a puppy. Identified as Natufian, a culture that dominated the Middle East about 12,000 years ago, this find was hailed as the earliest evidence of a close relationship between man and dog.
But what kind of relationship, and between which species, has just been questioned by Stanley J. Olsen, a paleontologist at the University of Arizona. Olsen suspects that the skeletal puppy was a wolf (the skeletons of young wolves and dogs are impossible to distinguish from one another) and he wonders about the role that the animal played in the life of the deceased.
In the "Origins of the Domestic Dog" (University of Arizona Press), Olsen ponders the Natufian grave as well as the bones and skulls of hundreds of other canids that have been found alongside human remains in China, Europe, Australia and North America.
Man and dog share a special history. The domesticated dog (Canis familiaris) was created by our hunter-gatherer ancestors using artificial selection. They selected individuals from the ancestral wolves that probably accompanied these nomads in their search for prey. Olsen speculates that early man and wolf both lived in groups, hunted in teams, and slept together at night to keep warm, just as some aborigines still sleep with dingos (Australian wild dogs that are in no way domesticated). Over time they discovered that wolves could be tamed, and eventually wolves were selectively bred until they had become a new species, one entirely subordinate to the human will.
As some human cultures became sedentary, farmers and townspeople bred dogs for ever more specialized duties, such as retrieving, shepherding and guarding. Early civilizations also tried their luck with other animals. Olsen tells us that the ancient Egyptians experimented with hyenas, gazelles and foxes, but could not make them into household animals. Other cultures mastered, but did not domesticate, animals such as sheep, cattle and fowl, all of which appear in the new sedentary cultures as soon as there are domesticated dogs.
Whether it was a wolf or dog in the Natufian grave, there is no doubt that the 8,000-year-old canid bones that Olsen recently examined in northern China are those of truly domesticated dogs. By this time the dog can be distinguished from the ancestral wolf by its relatively shorter skull and smaller, more crowded teeth.
The actual origin of the domestic dog is hard to pinpoint. All that is certain is that along with the camel and the horse, dogs originated in the Western Hemisphere about 15 million years ago, and from here migrated to the other continents.
Fossil evidence is tricky at best, and in the case of dog fossils, especially difficult because for years archeologists interested exclusively in human remains tossed aside the bones of other animals, making it impossible now for experts to date them. Moreover, wolves', jackals' and coyotes' bones look a good deal like those of dogs, complicating the puzzle.
Olsen is satisfied, however, that the bones he has studied in China belong to dogs very similar to those many of us have at home. But he is not sure of the part they played in ancient human society. For one thing, many of the bones were found in middens, kitchen leavings. He suspects these dogs were raised for food and were not the objects of sentimental attachments. In addition to their culinary role, Olsen describes 6,000-year-old dog skeletons found in Chinese graves with bronze bells suspended from their necks.
He is skeptical about the claims that a common grave signifies a bond of friendship between man and dog. He notes that when the bones of mammoths are found together with human remains in Europe, there is no mention then of an affectionate relationship between man and beast. It may be a cultural anachronism to project our emotions onto a civilization 12,000 years ago.
That some bond existed, however, he does not doubt. He proposes that it could just as logically have been a gastronomic, religious or ceremonial one. There are many possible scenarios to explain the Natufian grave--including a bond of affection between human and pup. What is certain is that humans have been living alongside some canid species for at least 12,000 years. During that time we have bred dogs of varied sizes and talents to suit our needs, including a need for undiluted devotion that makes the relationship between humans and dogs unique in the animal kingdom.