16,500 year old cemetery reveals the pets we kept before dogsS

A burial site recently uncovered in Jordan is the oldest ever discovered in the Middle East, at least 1,500 years older than any other cemetery previously discovered. But it's not just its great age that makes it special - the cemetery also reveals what animals humans kept as pets long before the domestication of dogs.

The site, which dates back about 16,500 years, was discovered in 'Uyun al-Hammam in Jordan. The University of Toronto researchers discovered the site back in 2000, but it's taken eleven years just to come to grips with what the site has to teach us. Indeed, this cemetery stands to be particularly useful, as it has eleven different sets of human remains - more than all other burial sites of this type combined.

But it isn't just the human corpses that have attracted attention, as they've also discovered remains of ancient pets. Previous burial sites dating back 15,000 to 12,000 years ago have revealed strong evidence that humans of that time period kept dogs as pets, with humans clearly being buried in intentional proximity to their dogs.

This new burial site has no dogs, but it does have multiple red fox skeletons. One grave contained the skull and right upper arm bone of a fox alongside those of various bigger animals. Another grave contained a nearly complete skeleton, missing only the skull and right upper arm bone - strongly indicating that these two skeleton fragments belong to the same fox, and that part of the animal was moved from one grave to another at some point.

Archaeologist Lisa Maher says this movement might be indicative of an ancient bond between humans and foxes:

"What we appear to have found is a case where a fox was killed and buried with its owner. Later, the grave was reopened for some reason and the human's body was moved. But because the link between the fox and the human had been significant, the fox was moved as well."

The researchers believe that this could be evidence of an early, failed attempt at domestication of foxes. Although it is possible up to a point to tame foxes - a Soviet breeding experiment had some recent success with this - but complete domestication of foxes is thought to be impossible because the animals are too naturally timid and skittish. Dogs have proven far better domestication candidates, although these findings suggest humans only learned that through a little trial and error.

Still, we should be careful about saying these ancient humans definitely kept these foxes as pets, or at least as pets in the same way we now understand it. Lead researcher Edward Banning explains:

"However, it is also noteworthy that the graves contain other animal remains, so we can only take the fox-dog analogy so far. We should remember that some more recent hunter-gatherers consider themselves to have social relationships with a wide range of wild animals, including ones they hunt, and that this sometimes led to prescribed ways to treat the remains of animals, as well as to represent relationships between particular humans and particular animals."

Whatever the precise reasons for the burial of foxes and these other animals, Banning says this finding is crucial for understanding the emphases ancient humans placed on the dead, and what significance they attached to burial:

"These were unusually dense and diverse concentrations of bones, and indicate very early mortuary practices that involved interring selected animal remains with humans. The site has implications both for our understanding of the development of ideas about death and mortuary practice, and for our understanding of the beginnings of domestication of dog-like animals."

Via PLoS ONE.