Earliest European Hunting Dogs Supported Their Weak
The “earliest evidence of the arrival of hunting dogs in Europe” discovered to date has been announced in a new article published in Nature. The Eurasian hunting dog remains were unearthed at the famed Dmanisi site in Georgia, known as a treasure trove of information related to evolutionary history during the Pleistocene.
The Dmanisi excavation site has garnered much attention for the plethora of discoveries made since 1983, including the most recent hunting dog remains. (Georgian National Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0)
What Makes Dmanisi Special?
Overlooking the grasslands of the steppe, Dmanisi is a small town in Georgia which has become famous in archaeological circles thanks to the discovery of ancient remains dating back 1.8 million years. Why does this make it so special, you may ask? An article published in Science put it succinctly. "There's no other place like it," explained archaeologist Nick Toth from Indiana University. "It's just this mother lode for one moment in time."
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Located at the crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe, the Paleolithic site of Dmanisi was first discovered back in 1983 when archaeologists exposed animal fossils during excavations of medieval homes dating back to a time when Dmanisi was an important city along the Silk Road. The animal fossil belonged to a rhinoceros ( Stephanorhinus sp.) who had lived during the Early Pleistocene age.
Since then, an array of archaeologists has uncovered an ancient world dating back to 1.8 to 1.7 million years ago, a time when the landscape and fauna were very different to that of the Caucasus region as it exists today. Some of the species uncovered include Etruscan wolves, Palaeotragus (a kind of okapi-giraffe), saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas. Paleobotanical data indicates that the area was home to a wide diversity of habitats which would have made it ideal for large mammals.
3D recreation of a Homo erectus georgicus skull found at Dmanisi. (Raquel / Adobe Stock)
Early Humans at Dmanisi
In 1984, archaeologists found stone tools which led them to believe that the site had also seen early human occupation. From 1991 onwards, continued excavations finally uncovered early human fossils, also dated back to 1.8 million years ago, making them the oldest human remains to have been found outside of Africa. These remains have been categorized as Homo erectus georgicus, representing a moment in human evolution between Australopithecus and Homo erectus, although this categorization continues to be subject to heated debate.
These early human remains at Dmanisi are what has made it particularly interesting for archaeologists as they provide unprecedented evidence of an early stage of human evolution, as humans moved north out of Africa. Keep in mind that at this point in human history, early humans would have been living without fire or clothing.
Before these discoveries, experts had presumed that the first hominins to leave the African continent had been Homo erectus, known for its upright stature and human-like body proportions. The human bones discovered at Dmanisi proved this to be incorrect. Homo erectus georgicus was a small hominin, with a height of only 1.5 meters (4.92 ft) tall, small brain (about a third the size of modern humans) and the ability to use only very simple tools. The Dmanisi remains show evidence of malnutrition and difficult conditions, and points to them having walked in a manner closer to chimpanzees.
A group of Homo erectus sharing food with an old and toothless individual who lived several years without teeth, an altruistic behavior associated with the early humans discovered at Dmanisi. (Mauricio Antón / Nature)
Eurasian Hunting Dogs at Dmanisi
Dmanisi could be described as the archaeological gift that keeps on giving, and it is important because it can help us to understand the migration and evolution of large mammals. The new article published in Nature has announced that not only is Dmanisi home to the earliest human remains found outside of Africa, but also the earliest evidence of hunting dogs near Europe. Their discovery at the site is thought to prove that humans and hunting dogs lived side by side during the Pleistocene era.
The Dmanisi dog is believed to have belonged to the species Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides, which is the scientific name for a type of extinct Eurasian hunting dog. This is based on the dental remains that were unearthed at the site. While little is known about the evolution of this subgenus of Canis, its modern-day ancestors are the Indian dhole ( Cuon alpinus) and the African hunting dog ( Lycaon pictus).
Hunting dogs are thought to have migrated out of Asia, into Europe and Africa, but there is little evidence to piece together the story of the evolution of these so-called “hypercarnivorous canids”. The authors of the study, led by Saverio Bartolini-Lucenti from the University of Florence, note that the dispersal of hunting dogs “from Asia to Europe and Africa followed a parallel route to that of hominins, but in the opposite direction.”
3D scans of the hemimandible fragments of the Eurasian hunting dog discovered in Dmanisi. (S. Bartolini-Lucenti / Nature)
In-Depth Analysis of Eurasian Dmanisi Hunting Dog Remains
The new study describes the findings of an in-depth examination of the hunting dog remains which have been dated to some time between 1.77 and 1.76 million years old. It’s incredible to see how much can be learned from the analysis of dental remains. The specimen was deemed to be a “hypercarnivore” after a comprehensive review of dietary preferences in existing canine specimens, which divided them into “omnivores” and “hypercarnivores” based on study of their dental features. This particular Eurasian hunting dog survived on a “diet consisting exclusively of vertebrate flesh.”
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The hunting dog remains tell a story of a young adult dog weighing about 30 kg (66 lbs), which has led the team to conclude that it must have adopted “cooperative hunting strategies,” an “altruistic” attribute recorded in the fossil record of hunting dogs at other sites and amongst existing canids. Studies of the African hunting dog, for example, have recorded “the tolerance by group members not only for injured, but also for disabled or old individuals at the kills.” Particularly heartwarming is the fact that “disabled or old African hunting dogs receive food by fellow pack members via regurgitation, a way of food-sharing that other canids reserve exclusively to kin, very rarely non-kin, pups and to the breeding female.”
According to the study, the same is true within the fossil record. A Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides discovered at the Venta Micena site in Spain has concluded that an individual with “numerous congenital disabilities” managed to reach adulthood. “This suggests that cooperative behavior and food provisioning from other members of the family group were the only way for this individual to survive until this age.” The article claims that the only species with proved altruistic behavior in the Early Pleistocene are hominins and hunting dogs.
This latest Dmanisi find is the earliest evidence of pack-hunting dogs to have been discovered near Europe to date. The study concludes that their successful dispersion and migration from Asia could be explained by these altruistic and cooperative qualities which ensured their survival. What is most exciting at Dmanisi is that so much of the Georgian site remains to be explored, which could provide a profusion of information about the evolution of the different species encountered.
Top image: A pack of Eurasian hunting dogs, like the one discovered at Dmanisi, chasing prey, while a disabled member of the pack is running far behind; incapable of contributing to the hunt, its survival depends on the pack-mates. Source: Mauricio Antón / Nature
By Cecilia Bogaard