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Archaeologists Discover Earliest Example Of Dog Domestication In Arabia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When archaeologists in Saudi Arabia excavated an ancient tomb, they were expecting to find the remains of a man. They weren't expecting to find man's best friend - bone fragments of a dog laid to rest with humans.

HUGH THOMAS: The animal bones had signs of age on it, like arthritis, which suggests that the dog had lived a pretty decent, long life. This was the first sign that we had of domestic dog.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hugh Thomas. He led the research team. Given how old the tomb was, he suspected it might have been a historically early example of a pet dog. But this was March 2020, and before they could determine when the dog lived, the pandemic hit.

THOMAS: Just as we were finding out this amazing discovery, we actually had to leave Saudi Arabia very quickly and return back home.

SHAPIRO: Thomas was finally able to run tests on a bone fragment this year.

THOMAS: This little piece of dog jaw bone, being able to get it tested, having that date come back, it was an incredibly exhilarating moment because suddenly it dawned on us, you know, wow, do we have the oldest domesticated dog in Arabia?

SHAPIRO: They did. The remains turned out to be 6,000 years old.

KELLY: And once researchers knew when the dog lived, they wanted to know how the dog lived. So they looked to rock art, paintings and etchings on slabs of rock. Each image is a clue about what life was like back then, says archaeologist Maria Guagnin.

MARIA GUAGNIN: There's always been this debate. How much control did humans actually have over these dogs? Just from bone remains, you can't really answer that question. And in the rock art, we could see there were leashes. And there was clear control over dogs. And different dogs had different roles in hunting strategies.

KELLY: The rock art shows some dogs looking fierce and barking, while others look more timid. Those subtle differences suggest domestication.

GUAGNIN: Each dog is different, and you can see their character coming through, even in sort of simple rock art depictions. You can really see that these people that depicted them had a personal relationship with each dog and knew each dog.

SHAPIRO: Six thousand years later, researcher Hugh Thomas knows something about that special relationship.

THOMAS: We have two little lap dogs, two pugs called Mixi (ph) and Aya (ph). Certainly, they would not be able to survive in that landscape.

SHAPIRO: Pugs may not be so helpful with hunting or survival in the desert, but just like those ancient Arabian dogs, they still make good companions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.