Saudi Arabian Dog Remains Are A Shocking Find

We’ll never get tired of hearing that dogs are a man’s best friend. What is true of domesticated dogs today, has been a socio-cultural and historical phenomenon developed over thousands of years, 15,000 years or so to be more precise. Thanks to a team of researchers from the University of Western Australia, Perth and the University of Geneva, we now have a better idea of the timeline. Funded by the Royal Commission of Al’Ula (RCU), Saudi Arabia , a new study analyses Saudi Arabian dog remains discovered at a burial site and concludes they are the earliest evidence of dog domestication in the Arabian Peninsula.

Location of the burial sites discovered, one of which contained the Saudi Arabian dog remains under investigation. (Thomas, H. et. al / Journal of Field Archaeology)

Location of the burial sites discovered, one of which contained the Saudi Arabian dog remains under investigation. (Thomas, H. et. al / Journal of Field Archaeology )

Analysis of 6,000-Year Old Saudi Arabian Dog Remains

As per their report published in the Journal of Field Archaeology , canine bones unearthed in a north-west Saudi Arabian burial site have been dated to between 4200 BC and 4000 BC. This is the earliest evidence of dog domestication in the region, specifically “the earliest chronometrically dated domestic dog in the Arabian Peninsula.” This takes us back a full 6,000 years in time, trumping earlier evidence that presented this occurrence as taking place about 5,000 years ago.

Excavations undertaken by Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (AAKSA) shed significant light on the social and funerary practices of northwestern Arabia during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. These Saudi Arabian dog remains are not the earliest evidence of dog domestication in history. There is evidence from the Natufian period in Israeli history going back 12,000 years ago, and Jordan too has evidence of dogs in hunting expeditions from 11,500 years ago.

Similarly, there are several indigenous tribes scattered over the world that have had semi-domestic or hunting relationships with dogs that predate the finds in the Arabian Peninsula. What sets this discovery apart are two factors. Firstly, the extremely harsh weather conditions and ensuing topography do not allow for the survival of too many species. Indeed, the Arabian Peninsula is the largest region in the world without any permanent rivers. Secondly, evidence of the history of the region and its communities shows a great degree of cultural isolation.

The Saudi Arabian dog remains found at the burial site in Al’Ula, Saudi Arabia, included 26 fragments of dog bones, along with the bones of 11 humans. ( Royal Commission of Al-Ula )

Aerial Investigations Discovered Harrat Uwayrid Burial Site

A few years ago, AAKSA aerially uncovered two monumental tombs in the less explored Al’Ula region – the Harrat Uwayrid site in the upland volcanic area and another site in the eastern sandstone badlands. Led by Hugh Thomas from UWA, the team proceeded with caution. After all, the tombs had been looted throughout their long history, including very recently. Yet, while precious stones and surviving material faced the brunt of the pillage, standing structures and bones survived, providing great archaeological value.

At the Harrat Uwayrid site, the tomb was found to have functioned for over 600 years, starting around 4300 BC. This indicates a continuity between the Neolithic and Chalcolithic eras. “ Al’Ula is at a point where we’re going to begin to realize how important it was to the development of mankind across the Middle East,” said the AAKSA director, Hugh Thomas. His team had begun aerial surveys, satellite mapping and drone photography almost seven years ago, covering over 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 sq mi) of scattered sites, and then began groundwork in 2018.

The rock panel found at Al’Ula depicts two dogs hunting an ibex, surrounded by cattle. Experts have dated the engravings to the late Neolithic, which would place it around the time of the recently excavated Saudi Arabian dog burial sites. (Royal Commission of Al-Ula)

The rock panel found at Al’Ula depicts two dogs hunting an ibex, surrounded by cattle. Experts have dated the engravings to the late Neolithic, which would place it around the time of the recently excavated Saudi Arabian dog burial sites. ( Royal Commission of Al-Ula )

Saudi Arabian Dog Remains at the Harrat Uwayrid Site

There at Harrat Uwayrid, the bones of a presumable family or community of 11 were found, and 26 bones from that of a single-dog. Looking at the laceration of the muscles analyzed in the Saudi Arabian dog remains uncovered, it was deduced that this animal had neither been killed nor sacrificed, but instead, suffered from arthritis. This indicated a long life and potential companionship that it must have provided. The burial with familial members, or just even other humans, indicates the dog’s elevated status amongst the deceased.

Laura Strolin, the lone researcher from the University of Geneva, was the team’s zooarchaeologist and her study of the bones and structure of the animal confirmed that it was no lone wolf, but a domesticated dog that had been discovered. “In terms of the canid remains, archaeological context is fundamental for interpretation: in all likelihood, the remains represent an entire dog buried with the deceased,” she writes in the report published in the Journal of Field Archaeology . These findings were corroborated with an Al’Ula rock art panel that was discovered and dated back to the late Neolithic age. It showed two dogs, surrounded by cattle, hunting an ibex, indicating companionship or a functional use in the hunting process.

These findings are part of a larger project undertaken by the monarchy of Saudi Arabia , who have discovered the revolutionary potential of the Al’Ula area, and the various sites within. This includes Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site , believed to be the southernmost outpost of the Romans around 106 AD. Expect more such fascinating research and archaeological insight into one of the world’s least explored histories in the future.

Top image: The burial site located in the badlands area of Al’Ula in Saudi Arabia contained evidence of Saudi Arabian dog remains which researchers claim are the earliest evidence of dog domestication in the Arabian Peninsula. Source: Royal Commission of Al-Ula

By Rudra Bhushan

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