Ancient Images of Dogs Include Restraints?

This dog is wearing a leash.

You, like me, may occasionally find youself in need of a canine control device. While I’m not a fan of the dog tie out, I do walk dogs on leash—as is required by our county and city government here in Madison, WI.

If you have read Temple Grandin’s books about dogs, you might feel a tug at your heartstrings while enduring a tug on the leash. Aren’t dogs meant to run freely? Don’t we love to watch them run? Are leashes humane?

When walking dogs I feel the need to protect them, but also a desire to let them live like dogs, sniffing, marking and other behaviors that are all limited when the dog is leashed.

When a report in Science last week showed evidence that our ancient ancestors were using leashes 8,000-9,000 years ago I was: 1) surprised; and 2) felt vindicated from self-imposed dog owner guilt.

The surprise is this: if you have followed recent canine archaeology and some of the scientific discoveries about when and where dogs first started hanging around humans, it’s a rather lovely, idyllic story that goes something like this:

Humans have always created food waste and have always dumped that waste in heaps. Wolves (that eventually became dogs) found this discarded food convenient—why take down a deer when people are leaving food lying around—and started visiting the waste sites. Eventually the wolves/dogs stopped running away as humans showed up, and maybe even learned that the humans would hand the waste over if the dog showed no threatening behavior.

In this fairy tale of dog meets human and learns to abide human behavior for free food, attraction is inevitable—the way to a dog’s heart is through its stomach? Dogs stayed close to early humans and were well fed.

Eventually some dogs were trained to help hunt food. For instance, on Zhokhov Island in northern Siberia, dogs provided transportation, helped catch polar bears and kept humans warm. Zhokhov Island is where the first evidence of humans selectively breeding dogs was found. Here is a blog from June 2017 about those findings.

However, nowhere in early dog archaeology has there been evidence of leashes, or at least not evidence as old as in this report from Saudi Arabia. The evidence was found carved in stone—images of humans with packs of dogs, several of which appear to be tethered to the humans.

The Details
These are the oldest images of dogs ever—other archaeologic evidence surrounding dogs has been based on remains, bones, sometimes from canines, sometimes wolf-canines and sometimes humans buried with canines.

These ‘engravings’ depict hunting scenes with dogs, wild creatures such as turkeys or ibex, and humans. Several of the dogs appear to be connected to the humans with lines that could be leashes.

The rock carvings were found in a hilly region, Shuwaymis, of northwest Saudi Arabia, where seasonal rains at one time formed rivers and supported vegetation. Over 1,000 rock art panels have been cataloged here in the several years since they were first discovered. A second location, Jubbah, about 200 kilometers (~124 miles) to the north, is another site of carved hunting scenes including dogs and humans.

Previous archaeological evidence shows that hunter-gatherers came to this region around 10,000 years ago. Carved images that appear to be from this time frame show the curvy figures of women.

More recent findings of livestock bones at Jubbah show that around 7,000-8,000 years ago the hunter-gatherers changed to herding for a livelihood. Rock carved images of sheep, goats and cattle seem to coincide with the age of the livestock bones found.

Then there are newer images carved on top of the curvy female figures and under the livestock that show early dogs, depicted in packs and with humans, and in scenes with wild animals. More than 150 such rock carvings have been found at Shuwaymis and over 190 at Jubbah in what is now Saudi Arabia. The researchers have not conclusively dated the stone artwork but believe it to coincide with the change to herding activity, and thus believe the dog carvings to be 8,000 to 9,000 years old.

Before these finding the earliest images showing canine restraints was in a wall painting from Egypt, dated at about 5,500 years old.

Here are some guesses as to why the restraints might have been used by ancient human dog handlers (please add your suggestions; no doubt I missed some):

10. To prevent young dogs from running away.
9. To show ownership of a certain dog. The dog had some unique quality that made it especially desirable.
8. To prevent the dog from being mated to an unspecified other dog. We learned earlier in 2017 that selective breeding of dogs was going on 9,000 years ago. The leash could support that theory.
7. For status. Again, the dog might have had a special trait—size, color, tail length–that made it particularly desirable.
6. For training purposes—to show a new dog how the human and other dogs worked together.
5. For protection of the human.
4. To demonstrate training prowess.
3. To protect the dog.
2. Dog was injured and being rehabilitated by limiting exercise.
1. To prevent the dog from fighting with other dogs.

As one archaeologist suggested, the lines in the rock carvings might only be symbolic, highlighting a dog of particular status or meaning to the owner—more trusted or reliable than others. Even then, he notes these lines are a sign of a strong bond, whether physical or symbolic.

Perhaps these carvings are also the oldest visual evidence of human-dog bonds. Your thoughts?

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Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".

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