Prehistoric People Hunted With Dogs in Jordan, Archaeologists Conclude From Hare Explosion

Discovery that suddenly, there were a lot of dead hares eaten by non-humans 11,500 years ago, suggests dog-assisted hunting, archaeologists say

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Selection of gazelle bones from Space 3 at Shubayqa 6 displaying evidence for having been in the digestive tract of a carnivore
Selection of gazelle bones from Shubayqa 6 with evidence of having been in the digestive tract of a carnivore. As opposed to a person.Credit: University of Copenhagen
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

People living in prehistoric Jordan seem to have been very advanced. They not only were making bread more than 14,000 years ago, before the advent of orderly agriculture, but they lived with dogs as early as 11,500 years ago, a new study from the University of Copenhagen concludes. These were not lap-dogs of leisure, but may have helped in hunting, the archaeologists suggested Tuesday in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

In fact the discovery at Shubayqa, in northwest Jordan, isn’t the earliest evidence of a human predilection for the pooch. A woman who lived 12,000 years ago in Israel was buried with a puppy, though whether the canid was a wolf or dog is unclear. However, one doesn’t bury loved ones with random passing carnivores, so the assumption is that the animal was held dear. But she probably didn’t run down prey with the puppy, while the people at Shubayqa may well have, the archaeologists explain.

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How did they reach that conclusion? Based on the dramatic increase in bones of small animals, such as hares, unearthed at the site compared with earlier times, which had the hallmarks of having been digested by a non-human. The remains were found at the part of the Shubayqa site designated as 6.

If you eat a shrew whole, and excrete its bones, the bones will have specific hallmarks of human digestion, typified by the concentration of stomach acid and so on. In fact a scientific team won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2013 for studying what happens to shrew bones if the micro-mammal is eaten whole by a human. 

If the shrew was eaten, say, by an owl, cat or crocodile, its bones will show different signals in each case. So the archaeologists studying Shubayqa 6 could state that a whole pile of animal bones found at the Jordanian site bore unmistakable signs of having passed through the digestive tract of something other than a human.

Jackrabbit at The Replica of old Fort Bliss
Jackrabbit at The Replica of old Fort Bliss.Credit: Ancheta Wis at English Wikipedia

“These bones are so large that they cannot have been swallowed by humans, but must have been digested by dogs,” says the study’s lead author, the zooarchaeologist Lisa Yeomans.

It is true that the dogs were evidently relieving themselves in the middle of town. But we can reasonably assume that the prehistoric Shubayqans were not collecting bones from doggie droppings. Yeomans and her colleagues demonstrated that Shubayqa 6 had been occupied year round, leading to the theory that the dogs and people cohabited. So the dogs weren’t eating small mammals and excreting their remains during times of village abandonment. Nor did they seem to lurk about outside just to deposit their doo in the village square.

“The dogs were not kept at the fringes of the settlement, but must have been closely integrated into all aspects of day-to-day life and allowed to freely roam around the settlement, feeding on discarded bones and defecating in and around the site,” Yeomans says.

The prehistoric peoples of the Middle East had quite a history of building walled traps into which they would chase larger animals. In this case, possibly the “curious increase” in dead small mammals could have ensued by the Shubayqans using dogs to chase the hapless hares into rather smaller traps. The archaeologists add that the locals used lapine bones to make beads.

Couldn’t there be other explanations? Yes, but given the history of humans, dogs and the Levant, it would be strange not to consider dog-assisted hunting as the likely explanation for the sudden advent of so many hare remains, says Yeomans.

Photograph of the Black Desert landscape taken from the top of Kef el-Kelb, in Shubayqa, eastern Jordan.
Photograph of the Black Desert landscape taken from the top of Kef el-Kelb, in Shubayqa, eastern Jordan.Credit: Joe Roe

There is thinking that dog domestication began around 15,000 years ago, based on a massive increase in dog population size at the time, indicating human support. There is also a burial found in Oberkassel, a suburb of Bonn, Germany, of two people with a dog, dating to around 14,500 years ago.

Back here in the Middle East, for what it’s worth, by 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, locals were almost certainly using dogs to hunt, based on rock art found in Shuwaymis and Jubbah, Saudi Arabia, that seems to show – no less – dogs on leashes. There are also pottery fragments with pictures of dogs, not wolves, from Khuzistan, Iran, that date to about 8,000 years ago. How do we know they are dogs, not wolves? Stubby and curly tails. Wolves don’t have those.