Dogs remain one of the biggest mysteries of domestication. Despite decades of research, we still don’t know where they came from–or even when they arose. But a couple of new studies are shedding light on when our relationship with dogs may have begun, and why it started.
The first concerns a handful of graves in western Illinois. In the 1960s and 70s, archaeologists excavated two sites here–Koster and Sitwell II–which were home to hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago. The researchers discovered the remains of five dogs curled up in shallow pits. Dating of the bones–reported last week in bioRxiv–reveals that they are about 10,000 years old. That makes these the oldest solo dog burials in the world–and the canines the oldest dogs known in the Americas.
We don’t know what these ancient people used these dogs for, but the fact that the animals were buried alone, and that the bones showed no sign of butchering, indicates these humans had a close relationship with their canines. It’s likely they used them to hunt deer and other small game in a nearby forest; they may also have used them to guard their campsites and pull supplies. They may even have relied on them for warmth and companionship.
Given that dogs arose at least 16,000 years ago, the Koster and Sitwell II dogs were hardly among the first dogs people interacted with. But they may have shared ancestry with the world’s first dogs.