Researchers have found what may be the earliest depiction of dogs hunting alongside a human companion in Saudi Arabia, in a sandstone carving believed to be more than 8,000 years old. The human is armed with a bow and arrow, accompanied by thirteen dogs, including two that appear to be tethered to their biped counterpart by what the researchers believe are leashes — possibly the oldest record of the use of such a restraining device by humans.
These rock engravings are carved into a sandstone cliff in Saudi Arabia’s Shuwaymis region. Now a desert, the area was once lush with pockets of vegetation, and also home to people that began to carve petroglyphs into the surrounding rock faces 10,000 years ago. The images began as depictions of women, but by 7,000 BCE the artists were carving hunting scenes, much like the canine-centric story rediscovered by archaeologists.
Humans and dogs have been hunting together for at least 14,700 years, making our canine companions the earliest domesticated species, predating the rise of agriculture in human societies. The dogs depicted in the Shuwaymis rock carvings resemble today’s Canaan dog, a largely feral breed that lives in the Middle East.
Researchers analyzing the rock carvings believe that the lines drawn between two of the dogs and the waist of the human to be leashes, possibly being used to train the attached dogs. If this is the case, and if the age of the carvings is accurate, then this record predates the previously-oldest record of the use of leashes, a 5,500-year-old painting found in Egypt.
"It’s truly astounding stuff," explains Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. "It’s the only real demonstration we have of humans using early dogs to hunt."
The researchers caution that the date of the carvings is still an estimate based on various characteristics, such as weathering on the rock and the sequence of the carvings, but their "chronology is sound," according to Griffith University archaeologist Paul Tacon.
Tacon also cautions that there is the possibility that the lines may depict a symbolic connection between the figures, rather than a physical one. "It could just be a depiction of a bond." He points out that the carvings go as far as to depict specific coat markings, body stances and genders for individual dogs, implying that each animal was known by the artist. "These creatures were very important, beloved companions."