Ritual Sacrifice May Have Shaped Dog Domestication

In the city of Salekhard, Russie in the Siberian Arctic, you’ll find an ancient ritual site that has baffled many researchers in the past. Some of the most prevalent details in the site are the large numbers of dog remains that are scattered everywhere in the area. These dog remains have been there for centuries, yet little is known about why they’re there or how they got to be in the numbers that they’re in. Since the first excavation back in 1935, at least 128 dogs have been identified in parts or in skeletal completion. It’s an unusual site to behold—to say the least. No other place in the Arctic has so many dog remains in one place.

Researchers wanted to dig in further to find out what the relationship was between dogs and the ancient community of the Ust’-Polui, the ancient inhabitants of the area. Robert Losey led the study. Him and his team of anthropologists from the University of Alberta in Canada published their findings in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology this month. The point of their study was to provide insight into the domestication of dogs from during that time. It appears that human interaction and culture had a large role in it all.

The evolution of dogs has long been a debate among experts. Some argue the belief that the evolution of dogs from wolves occurred naturally. Others consider that it was domestication that resulted into the evolution of the dog. The question of when dogs actually emerged in the timeline of history has always been unclear, but what was clear is that it seemed to have happened around the time when canines and humans began to interact with one another. Many scientists are still finding out the reasons why humans needed to interact with dogs to begin with, but it happened at some point in history.

Little is known about the fact because the subject matter is rarely studied. Losey and his team wanted to prove that the interaction between a group of humans (such as the Ust’-Polui) and a group of dogs resulted to more than just bodily evolution. Human-dog interactions resulted directly into domestication, and the team wanted to show this by analyzing the kind of activities the ancient tribe participated in back in the days. They also analyzed what roles the dogs in the area might have played in the culture altogether. These all happened roughly 2,000 years ago.

The researchers have concluded that the Ust’-Polui regularly interacted with dogs during their time. They surmised that hundreds of dogs—all of different kinds and sizes—probably came into the area, Because of cut marks on the remains of some of the young dogs, the researchers suggested that the Ust’-Polui probably had dog as part of their regular diet. Some dog parts were treated with special interest, especially the crania. Some of the remains that were dug up were strung up with strings, as if to serve an ornamental purpose. Some dog crania were also attached to sticks. The researchers believed that some of these animals were ritually sacrificed, while other dogs that died of natural causes were buried whole.

There were other important behavioral factors the researchers discovered. For one, there were wooden sleds in the area that were likely pulled by the dogs. The bone compositions of the remains were also analyzed for information on the dogs’ diet. It seemed that fish was a regular part of their diet, which meant that the animals probably needed help from the humans to obtain food. The researchers believed that the bodies of the animals changed over time due to the physical strain required of them by the humans. This was the factor that changed the way dogs looked and behaved for centuries to come. This clear understanding of how humans might have interacted with dogs and incorporated the animals into their culture is the key to understanding domestication. While this may only be a single line of evidence coming from one particular culture, it’s a great way to analyze the possibilities of how dogs came to be. The more studies like this are performed throughout various ancient cultures globally, the more we’ll understand why dogs became integral in the culture of humans. With that, we’ll understand more of how domestication came to be.


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