Origins of Domesticated Dogs Found in Oral Tradition
Although there’s plenty of evidence to prove the close relationship between humankind and canines has evolved over many, many thousands of years, where, when and especially why that contact between our two species started has long remained a scientific mystery.
Limited to relying on archaeological and genetic evidence, researchers have had great difficulty tracking canines through time, particularly because there were so many similarities between wolves and early domesticated dogs. In many cases, the greatest differences between untamed wolves and domesticated canines was that the wolves simply didn’t interact with people nearly as much.
That’s where the human oral tradition — storytelling — can help fill the gaps, according to the findings of a recent study published in the June edition of the journal Anthropozoologica. Historian Julien d’Huy of the College of France in Paris asserts humankind’s collective tendency to mythologize our canine companions may be just as old as people’s relationships with them. Revisiting such tales helped d’Huy and fellow researchers dig deeper into the history of dog domestication.
On the other hand, or paw, as it were, it could be argued tracking human migration and the spread of information through myths is unreliable because stories change quickly. D’Huy counters that with the fact that dogs play a primary role in the origin stories of many cultures; because those myths are often fundamental to cultural identity, they have become stable reference points through the many years.
“With mythology, we can have explanations of archaeology, we can have reasons for domestication, we can test hypotheses,” d’Huy said in the Anthropozoologica piece.
D’Huy announced he found three core story lines for the earliest dog myths: the first linking dogs with the afterlife, the second associated with dogs and humans coming together and the third connecting a dog with the star Sirius. Versions of these stories are part of numerous cultural regions around the globe, said d’Huy, who used statistical methods from the study of biology to create family trees of myths, showing how the stories evolved as humans carried them from between regions of the world.
Folk tales first grew from Central and Eastern Asia and then expanded to Europe, the Americas and later Australia and Africa — a travel route very similar to a suspected trajectory for dog domestication based on genetic and fossil evidence.
D’Huy said he didn’t anticipate at first that dogs and the mythology about them would travel over the ages together. “This was a surprise.”
The abundance of ancient myths identifying dogs as guides to the afterlife reveal human ancestors first didn’t domesticate wolves to be hunting companions, as has been generally assumed, but for spiritual and symbolic reasons, d’Huy said. That conclusion fits certain archaeological finds, including a 14,000-year-old grave in Germany that held a couple and two dogs. The woman was found with her hand resting on the head of one of the dogs.
D’Huy is taking the ways he studied dogs to investigate what keys ancient myths hold about humans’ connection with other animals as well, like such as sheep. “Comparative mythology has something to say in the world of research,” he said. “Something very precious to say, I think.”