The dog (Canis familiaris) evolved from the wolf (Canis lupus) in a number of parallel and independent episodes of domestication. Domestication is inferred in the archaeological record from skeletal changes in the teeth and skull—in particular, crowding of the tooth row. Additional changes include an overall diminution in size and increased variability in domesticates. The earliest claim of domestic dog in the Near East comes from the Palegawra cave in Iraq, in a deposit dated to about 10, 000 BCE. However, both the date and the morphological identification of this canid is contested. In Natufian levels (c. 9600 BCE) at ῾Ein Mallaḣa in northern Israel, a woman was buried with a wolf or dog puppy. Although, the wild or domestic status of the puppy cannot be determined, it documents the first ceremonial relationship between humans and canids in the region.
The ceremonial treatment of dogs took several forms. Interment, with or without accompanying human burial, is known throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean, but only in Egypt and Israel was it practiced on a large scale. Dogs were used in sacrificial and exorcistic rites in Anatolia. Among the western Semites, puppies were specified for sacrifice to conclude a covenant. In Mesopotamia and Anatolia, dogs and puppies played a role in cultic healing and rites to eliminate impurity. Dogs were used in healing rituals in Greece, but they were also sacrificed and apparently eaten in conjunction with human burials.
In Egypt, in a few cases, dogs have been found accompanying human burials in deposits as early as the Neolithic and Badarian periods. Large-scale burial of mummified remains are known from the Hellenistic and especially Roman periods. At the Chalcolithic cemetery at Gilat in the Negev, two dogs with grave goods were recovered. Also in southern Israel, more than 1200 dog interments were excavated from Persian and Early Hellenistic levels at the site of Ashkelon. In Mesopotamia, the dog was associated with the goddess Gula in her function as healer, and a number of puppies and adults were found in a ramp of her temple at Isin (c. 1000 BCE). Dog burial was widespread but does not seem to have been similarly motivated in each region. At Ashkelon, for example, the dogs were carefully interred in separate pits, but no grave goods accompanied them, and the burials were not associated with architecture of any notable scale. The reason for their burial remains a mystery. [See Gilat; Ashkelon; Isin.]
Egyptian and Mesopotamian art contains numerous images of dogs that have been identified as representing ancient breeds, often greyhounds and salukis or mastiffs. These are not confirmed by the osteological evidence from Egypt and the Near East, however. Reconstructions of the size, weight, limb proportions, and head shape of ancient dogs shows that prior to the Roman period selective dog breeding was not practiced in a way that produced distinctive populations. Rather, the osteological evidence reveals that the dogs of the region can be referred to the “pariah”—medium-sized animals varying in body and head from a sheep dog to a greyhound type.
- Churcher, C. S. “Dogs from Ein Tirghi Cemetery, Balat, Dalkhleh Oasis, Western Desert of Egypt.” In Skeletons in Her Cupboard, edited by Anneke Clason et al., pp. 39–59. Oxbow Monograph, 34. Oxford, 1993. Critical survey of appearance of dog types in ancient Egypt.
- Day, Leslie P. “Dog Burials in the Greek World.” American Journal of Archaeology 88 (1984): 21–32. Reviews the evidence for Greek dog sacrifice and its underlying motivations.
- Haddon, Kathleen. “Report on a Small Collection of Mummy Dogs.” In The Cemeteries of Abydos, part 1, 1909–1910: The Mixed Cemetery and Umm el-Ga῾ab, by Edouard Naville, et al., pp. 40–48. Memoir of the Egyptian Exploration Society, 33. London, 1913. Despite its age, the best zoological evaluation of the dog “types” in Egyptian mummified remains.
- Olsen, Stanley J. Origins of the Domestic Dog: The Fossil Record. Tucson, 1985. Global review of the osteological evidence for dog domestication.
- Wapnish, Paula, and Brian Hesse. “Pampered Pooches or Plain Pariahs? The Ashkelon Dog Burials.” Biblical Archaeologist 56.2 (1993): 55–80. Although focused on the burials at Ashkelon, the article provides a regionwide review of dogs in the historic period.
Paula Wapnish and Brian Hesse