Better Together – The Story of Humans and Dogs

Posted March 29, 2024

Susan C. Ryan, Executive Vice President of the Research Institute

Mine is lying next to me, belly up and front legs splayed like Superman in flight. She waits for me to scratch her belly and, if I don’t, she gently growls until I acquiesce. Izzie, my extremely opinionated and fluffy canine companion, has me trained!

The relationship between humans and canids (wolves, jackals, foxes, coyotes, and dogs) is one of the oldest partnerships ever forged, having begun at least 30,000 years ago when hunters and gatherers formed symbiotic relationships with wolves. The question of when and where canids were first domesticated has puzzled archaeologists and geneticists for decades. We know dogs were the first mammal to be domesticated, a process taking place over 16,000 years ago and prior to the domestication of plants. Genetic and phenotypic evidence suggests dogs were first domesticated from two distinct wolf populations in Eastern and Western Eurasia.

Surprisingly, the domestication process can happen rather quickly, as witnessed during the Fox Farm experiment in Novosibirsk, Siberia. In 1959, Dmitri Belyaev, a Russian geneticist, set out to understand the processes by which wolves became dogs but, instead of studying wolves, he experimented with silver foxes. Hypothesizing ancient humans were drawn to traits associated with tameness, Belyaev intentionally selected for and bred foxes who displayed friendly behaviors (as opposed to “I’m going to bite your hand off” behaviors). Within six generations, the foxes were not only friendly, they developed morphological characteristics indicative of domestication, including floppy ears, curly tails, juvenilized facial and body features, mottled fur, and more. This study has not been applied to wolves, but we assume domestication will take place within a similar amount of time.

In North America, dogs, with genetic ties to East Asia, moved with Indigenous peoples as they traversed the landscape. Dogs were most likely utilized to transport goods and people, warn of potential threats, warm beds, as companions, hunting aids, for protection, ritual, and as sources of food and textiles. The oldest known archaeological dog remains recovered in North America come from present-day Illinois at the Koster and Stilwell II sites, dating between 10,190 and 9,630 B.P. Analyses suggest these dogs were medium sized, lived an active lifestyle, and had diets rich in river fish and plants.

In the Southwest U.S., the earliest dog remains come from present-day southern Arizona at the Las Capas site along the Santa Cruz River. Dating to the San Pedro phase of the Early Agricultural period (approximately 1,200-800 B.C.), these dogs were medium sized to large, somewhere between a Springer Spaniel and a German Shepard. Additionally, dog remains from later time periods have been identified north of the Mogollon Rim by Crow Canyon researchers from the Haynie site.

In 2016, the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center initiated the Northern Chaco Outliers Project, a multi-year research initiative focused on the Haynie site, a large ancestral village occupied from the 6th through 12th centuries A.D. This project was designed to generate data necessary to address questions fundamental to understanding a series of broader anthropological research topics. Data collected in the field and laboratory provide insights into human-environment relationships though time, social stratification and equality/inequality, the role of public architecture and community centers, and identity formation. By engaging in this research, Crow Canyon researchers and Indigenous partners shed light on how past human behaviors can teach us about the successes and challenges modern societies face throughout the world as we strive to create change for the betterment of humanity.

Crow Canyon’s Environmental Archaeologist, Dr. Jonathan Dombrosky, and Zooarchaeology Intern, Ahna Feldstein, spent ten weeks analyzing animal bone recovered from the Haynie site during the spring and summer of 2023. As summarized in the NCOP Annual Report (``), the faunal assemblage contains specimens attributed to dogs, coyotes (Canis latrans), and wolves (Canis lupus), suggesting human-canid relationships were varied and complex. Dombrosky and Feldstein reported on 70 Canid specimens, approximately 0.89% of the total animal bone assemblage analyzed to date. Canid specimens are rare as evidenced by data from the entire Crow Canyon multi-site Research Database, contributing to less than 8% of the total number of individual specimens recovered between 1983 and 2023.

Examining the contexts from which canids were recovered, Dombrosky and Feldstein untangled the complex story of how remains were deposited in the archaeological record, providing insights into human-canid relationships. In one notable instance, a complete dog skeleton was placed on the floor of a Pueblo II period (A.D. 950-1150) pit structure (a subterranean habitation room) prior to its decommissioning. Inferred as a dedicatory offering, this dog likely had an important social and spiritual role in life and in death. The care and intentionality in how the dog was positioned reminds us of our long-standing relationships with dogs, bonds reaching back through the millennia.

Perhaps there is a dog next to you as you read this. Perhaps, like mine, you hear a gentle growl when they want their belly or neck scratched. As you acquiesce and extend your arm to comply (because no doubt you have been trained, like me), ponder the longest-lived relationship humans co-created with another species and then contemplate how, though time and space, people’s lives have improved because we share this unique bond.