Anthropologists at the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge have discovered the oldest cemetery in the Middle East at a site in northern Jordan. The cemetery includes graves containing human remains buried alongside those of a red fox, suggesting that the animal was possibly kept as a pet by humans long before dogs ever were.
“What we appear to have found is a case where a fox was killed and buried with its owner,” says Maher, who directs excavations at the site. “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 say that it could suggest that foxes were at one time treated in much the same way as dogs, in that there could have been early attempts to tame foxes, but no successful domestication. Studies have shown that foxes can be brought under human control but is not easily done given their skittish and timid nature, which may explain why dogs ultimately achieved “man’s best friend” status instead.
“However, it is also noteworthy that the graves contain other animal remains, so we can only take the fox-dog analogy so far,” says Banning. “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.” Banning says that the “pet” hypothesis is only one among several, which happens to fit with modern preconceptions about human-dog relationships.