Dingoes Elevated to 'Almost-Human' Status in Pre-Colonial Australia
Dogs have often been referred to as "man's best friend," but in the case of the wild dingo in Australia, it has endured a somewhat less favorable reputation. However, new research suggests that dingoes enjoyed a different status before European colonization – they were buried and even domesticated by Australia's First Nations people.
The study published in PLoS ONE, conducted by experts from The Australian National University and The University of Western Australia, focused on the Curracurrang archaeological site, located south of Sydney. Radiocarbon dating of dingo remains at this site unveiled a remarkable finding: dingoes were laid to rest alongside humans as far back as 2,000 years ago. This careful act of burying the animals hints at a much closer relationship between humans and dingoes than previously understood, according to Dr. Loukas Koungoulos, the lead researcher.
Dr. Koungoulos stated:
"While not all camp dingoes received burial rites, in areas where such burials were recorded, the process and methods of disposal closely paralleled those associated with human rituals in the same region. This reflects the intimate connection between people and dingoes, elevating them to an 'almost-human' status."
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Dingo burial as subject of the study, recorded in a rock shelter crevice at Adcock Gorge, central Kimberley, Australia. (K. Akerman/PLoS ONE)
Our Life-Long Companions
Australia isn’t the first place to find evidence of the longstanding close relationship between humans and canines. A find in Sweden revealed that as far back as 8,400 years ago, humans and dogs shared a profoundly unique connection. Archaeologists there also unearthed canine remains that exhibited burial practices akin to those typically reserved for humans. This discovery too suggested that the ancient bond between Stone Age humans and these dogs went beyond mere practicality, indicating a deep reverence for the animals. And there are plenty of other examples.
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Wild dingo in the gibber habitat of South Australia. (Kris/Adobe Stock)
Just How Far Back Does This Bond Go?
The prevailing theories propose that wolves initially became drawn to discarded food scraps at human hunting settlements, leading to their evolution as more adept scavengers than hunters. Tamer wolves, those that learned the art of scavenging at human campsites, thrived, while the fiercest predator wolves were gradually left behind—a principle in line with Darwin's Theory of natural selection.
During the period spanning from 100,000 to 8,000 BC, early hominids and wolves coexisted in forests and hunting grounds. The exact emergence of domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) from their wild ancestors, the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus), remains uncertain. Until around 2010, the prevailing belief was that domestication occurred approximately 14,000 years ago. However, comprehensive studies of dog mitochondrial DNA strongly suggest that their evolution paralleled humans over 100,000 years ago.
Supporting this evolving perspective, in 2009, researchers discovered several dog skulls ritually interred in a Czech Republic cave, dating back to 30,000 BC. Furthermore, in 2011, the skeleton of a Paleolithic dog from the same era was found, with the canine biting a large mammoth bone. Intriguingly, its brain had been carefully removed post-mortem, implying a ritual significance. Another dog skull, dating back to 31,000 BC, was uncovered alongside a human burial in Siberia's Razboinichya Cave. This discovery not only reveals that early humans had domesticated hunting dogs but also underscores the crucial role these dogs played within their spiritual belief systems.
The earliest depiction strongly indicating dog domestication was found in Saudi Arabia, with dogs on leashes portrayed as far back as 8,000 years ago.
Back to the Outback
The discovery of the dingo burials in Australia was not the only evidence suggesting the domestication of wild dingoes by Australia's First Peoples. Severe dental wear observed in dingo remains at the site indicates a diet rich in large bones, likely remnants from human meals.
Furthermore, researchers identified the remains of dingoes of various ages at the site, from pups to animals aged six to eight years. This finding implies that First Nations people not only cared for young dingoes before their release into the wild but also established much more enduring relationships with them.
Co-author Professor Susan O'Connor emphasized the significance of these findings, stating,
"This marks a crucial development in our comprehension of the bond between Australia's First Peoples and dingoes. By the time European settlers arrived in Australia, the connection between dingoes and Indigenous communities had already deepened. Indigenous accounts and historical records have documented this bond. Our research confirms that these long-lasting relationships existed well before European colonization, dispelling the notion of transient, temporary associations recorded during the colonial era."
The research has been published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.
Top image: Evidence shows dingoes like these were held in high esteem by Australia's First Peoples. Source: Aaron/Adobe Stock
By Gary Manners