Might Pleistocene Fido Have Been A Fox?

There is a small bit of land, only about a square kilometer, that has added a new wrinkle to the story of animal domestication. This bit of land located in Northern Jordan, just southeast of the Sea of Galilee near the banks of the Jordan River, is home to an archaeological site known as 'Uyun al-Hammam. One key feature of this site, excavated in 2005, is a burial ground containing the remains of at least eleven humans in eight different gravesites. The early humans were buried here sometime during the pre-Natufian period, or around 16,500 years ago.

prenatufian gravesite.jpg

Layout of the 'Uyun al-Hammam site, and an inset map indicating its location. Click to enlarge.

ResearchBlogging.orgIn addition to the human remains, the archaeologists and paleontologists from the Universities of Cambridge and Toronto, led by Lisa A. Maher, uncovered several animal bones from among the grave sites. In grave one, a fox skull was found along with its right humerus, as well as the remains of a gazelle, a deer, and a tortoise. In grave seven, the researchers discovered most of a fox skeleton, a red deer antler, and a fragment of a goat's horn. It's fairly common to find pieces of animal horns or bones sculpted into tools around human settlements, but a complete fox skeleton? This is unusual.

By comparing the fox skull with other fossil canid skulls from the same geographical region, the researchers were able to determine that their's was a red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which was indeed known to be present in that area during the late Pleistocene. It turned out, somewhat surprisingly, that the fox skull and the fox skeleton belong to the very same fox.

But why was the skull and humerus from the fox found in grave one, while a fox skeleton sans-skull and -humerus was all the way over in grave seven?

It turns out that the human (probably a male, but this is uncertain) who had originally been buried in grave seven was moved - for some unknown reason - to grave one. The placement of the fox bones relative to the location of the human bones strongly suggests that the two were intentionally buried together. But while there were other fox bones found at other sites in 'Uyun al-Hammam, every other fox fossil shows some sign of consumption, such as knife marks in the bones or evidence of burning. This fox, however, is the only one found with an intact skeleton and no evidence of consumption or exploitation. Therefore, Maher doesn't think that the foxes bones were included in the gravesite as some sort of "accessory." Rather, because the fox skull was explicitly moved from grave seven to grave one at the same time that the human remains were moved from grave seven to grave one, Maher suggests that there was some sort of special relationship between that individual human and that particular fox. She writes, "It is possible that the link between fox and human was such that when the human died the fox was killed and buried alongside. Later, when the graves were re-opened, these links were remembered and bones moved so that the dead person would continue to have the fox with him or her in the afterlife."

ein mallaha.jpgIt has become commonly accepted that dog domestication began around 15,000 years ago in the Middle East, around the same time that the burial ground at 'Uyun al-Hammam was created. Other archaeological sites from the region support the emerging relationship between humans and canids, such as the grave at Ein Mallaha in Northern Israel (see image, right), which includes an elderly woman buried with her hand placed on a puppy near her head. And another nearby excavation site in Israel called Hayonim Terrace features three humans found with the full skeletons of two dogs.

Given that early humans in the Middle East were building a sort of symbiotic relationship with small gray wolves (Canis lupus) which, through a protracted period of domestication, became the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), it is reasonable to infer that small foxes could also have been considered as potential candidates for domestication. In fact, a longitudinal study of domestication conducted in Siberia has indicated that foxes are quite easy to domesticate. We will probably never know exactly what the relationship was between the early inhabitants of the Jordan River valley and the red fox, but taken together the evidence suggests that these small canids were more than just resources for food, work, or fur. Instead, there was some sort of strong emotional relationship that warranted special burial rituals.

fox skull.jpg

Conserved and reconstructed fox skull from grave one. Click to enlarge.

The human relationship with canids extends "over a period of massive social, technological, economic and ideological change," spanning over fifteen thousand years of human history. Indeed, your relationship with the dog currently cuddled on your lap or at your feet as you read this blog post is likely quite similar to the relationship of that pre-Natufian man with his fox. What other human invention has lasted that long?

Maher LA, Stock JT, Finney S, Heywood JJ, Miracle PT, & Banning EB (2011). A unique human-fox burial from a pre-natufian cemetery in the levant (jordan). PloS ONE, 6 (1) PMID: 21298094

Other coverage of this story: NPR, TIME. Blogs: LiveScience, Brain Posts, Save the Carbon, Bones Don't Lie.

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There's certainly enough youtube videos of people with foxes as pets for me to believe it.

It doesn't appear they're domesticated to the same extent that dogs are, (i.e. bred for generations for traits that make them friendly to humans.) But they seem to tolerate humans pretty well.

No surprise here: the Channel Island fox was moved to the southern Channel Islands of California by humans (according to the genetics), and I've heard stories of sailors living on Catalina who captured foxes on other islands, tamed them, and brought them home as pets.

Aside from the foxes being cute (to some degree--they aren't dogs), one supposition I've heard for why the islanders domesticated foxes is that the southern channel islands were originally over-run by indigenous deer mice. Such mice would have been a real nuisance for the first people who settled there. Having a cute, mouse-eating fox along as a pet would be quite welcome.

I'm willing to bet that people have been "domesticating" foxes all over the place.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 23 Feb 2011 #permalink

It leads to the next interesting question, actually. Why did domestication of wolves catch on, and foxes not?

@gina -- what a charming child you are, too!

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 24 Feb 2011 #permalink

I stick to my observation of energy and fusion. I have a budgie and a finch in my aviary and a very odd couple, yet they have fused and socialise with one another in their own particular way.

The fox and the pre-Natufian human may have connected in circumstances that were right at that time and a bond of trust was established. Domestication is one thing, but a 'tame' fox (vulpes vulpes) is a great confirmation of how close humans and non-human animals can grow.

People are only scratching the surface of the remarkable relationships that can grow between companion animals of variable species, besides the canids, given the appropriate encouragement ................ the right way!

You say that "It has become commonly accepted that dog domestication began around 15,000 years ago in the Middle East", but I've always read that it was earlier than this. A quick look through wikipedia's links uncovered possible dog fossils from about 30,000 years ago and a genetic study from 2002 which found the greatest genetic diversity in East Asian dogs, suggesting modern domestic dogs descend from East Asian stock. Given that dogs are found on New Guinea, Australia and pre-Columbian America, domestication earlier and further east seems to make sense.

Germonpré, M. et. al. (2008). Fossil dogs and wolves from Palaeolithic sites in Belgium, the Ukraine and Russia: osteometry, ancient DNA and stable isotopes Journal of Archaeological Science 38, 473-480

Savolainen, P. et. al. (2002). Genetic Evidence for an East Asian Origin of Domestic Dogs Science 298, 1610-1613

@Luna_the_cat: One reason tame foxes never caught on was probably the smell. Fox urine smells obnoxious!

Neolithic people probably tried many species for domestication. I have read somewhere that all carnivores now living on the Mediterranean islands were introduced by the first people who reached the islands: Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and least weasel (Mustela nivalis) on all islands, pine marten (Martes martes) on Sardinia. Endemic carnivores like Cynotherium and otters became extinct at the same time.

By Karl Einum (not verified) on 25 Feb 2011 #permalink

@Karl Einum --

Ok, that's an interesting thought. But, admittedly a great deal later, humans domesticated pigs, as well -- and have you ever smelled pig sh-- er, excrement?

Re. foxes, weasels and in one place martens introduced on islands -- introduced by humans? Really? I'll have to find out more about that; thanks for an interesting idea. If they did, I wonder why.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 26 Feb 2011 #permalink