Monday, June 2, 2014

An Ancient Dog's Life Story at Lake Baikal

In the past, an ancient dog's life story was told through an analysis of his bones. Now a more comprehensive tale can be told as scientists supplement traditional archeology with modern technology including isotope geochemistry, DNA analysis, and radiocarbon dating.



A rich collection of prehistoric dog remains dot the south and west shores of Siberia's Lake Baikal, the largest and oldest fresh water lake in the world. The area's well-preserved Middle Holocene (three to nine thousand years old) hunter-gatherer cemeteries attract scientists from all over the world.
Siberia's Lake Baikal lies in a vast crescent 
about 400 miles north of Mongolia. The Baikal 
Archeology Project is a consortium of 
international scholars studying how 
social and environment pressures
 influence long term cultural change. 

An international team of scientists, led by Robert Losey, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, examined 17 human and dog burial sites, most about 7,000 years old. Analyzing their findings within the rich well-studied culture of Lake Baikal,  the researchers concluded that ancient indigenous people thought of some dogs the same way they did other extremely powerful animals - NOT as simple beings whose souls collectively recycle back into the primordial species-soup, but as beings who, like humans, had distinct and  individual souls, and as such required appropriate mortuary rights so they could be reborn as the same "person". (Read about the 2013 study in the Siberian Times.)

Stone and bone implements surround the skull. 
The dog has a round rock in its mouth.  
Buried with artifacts the dog would have 
used regularly during its life indicates he 
had near human spiritual status. 
Picture: plosive.org

Although many dogs received no special treatment during life or at death, the remains of some dogs indicated that, like their people, dogs suffered injury and were nursed back to health. Both ate the same diets primarily consisting of fish, seafood and game.   People and dogs were buried near each other in the same cemetery, and in some cases, were buried together. One dog was buried with a decorative pendant (red deer teeth) hanging around her neck. In one case a man was buried with two dogs, one in each arm.
Using DNA and stable isotope analysis, 
researchers determined that the dog and 
human diets were the same. 
Note calf skull placed between 
the dog's legs.

Professor Losey told the press, "I think the act of treating [a dog] as a human upon its death indicates that people knew it had a soul, and that the mortuary rites it received were meant to ensure that this soul was properly cared for."

The Paleolithic Siberian dog looked 
a lot like this modern day Siberian Husky,
 only larger with significantly bigger teeth.  
Bone wear indicated he worked
along side his people, likely as a transport
animal hauling heavy loads.

Canids as persons: Early Neolithic dog and wolf burials, Cis-Baikal, Siberia; Robert J. Losey et al, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Volume 30, issue 2, June 2011, pp 174-189.

Read more about the project here.
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