1:48pm

Sat February 19, 2011
Animals

Man's First Best Friend Might Have Been A Fox

Originally published on Sun February 20, 2011 11:42 am

In a dusty, ancient burial site in northern Jordan, archaeologists have made a startling discovery: a fox buried alongside human remains.

It seems some 16,000 years ago, several millennia before any animals were domesticated, humans may have been making an early attempt to keep pets. Red foxes, to be precise.

It's a surprising find, Cambridge researcher Lisa Maher tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "When we were first excavating the site, we thought it might have been a dog," she says. It wasn't until her team analyzed the animal's remains that it realized it was a fox.

That the fox was a pet is only one of several possibilities, however. It may instead have had totemic or spiritual significance to the culture. But Maher's team compared the burial site to sites from 4,000 years later, when domesticated dogs did accompany human burials. The similarities suggest "that it probably was a more emotional relationship of one particular fox to one particular person," she says.

Those similarities are also significant because they highlight a continuity in mortuary practices through time, Maher adds.

"We're seeing these things, these similarities in mortuary practices and relationships to humans and animals in a much greater time depth than we had previously," she says.

If the fox were indeed a pet, it would be a pretty big deal.

"It's certainly a big deal for prehistoric archeology," Maher says, "but it's also a big deal for how we understand human-animal relationships today and in the past."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

In a dusty, ancient burial site in Northern Jordan, archaeologists have made a startling discovery: a fox buried with human remains. It seems that some 16,000 years ago, several millennia before any animals were domesticated, humans were making an early attempt to keep pets. Dogs and cats would not appear for three or 4,000 years, but scientists believe people were curling up with pets around the campfires, and those pets were foxes, red foxes, to be precise.

Lisa Maher is a researcher at the University of Cambridge and one of the authors of a new paper on the prehistoric pet fox. She joins me now from the BBC studios in Glasgow. Welcome.

Ms. LISA MAHER (Researcher, University of Cambridge): Thank you very much. Thank you for having me here today, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Could you tell me about this site in Jordan? Who lived there? When did they live there?

Ms. MAHER: The site in Jordan is a hunter-gatherer site, and it was occupied by a group of people that we as prehistoric archaeologists call the Geometric Kebaran. But the main point is that they were seasonally mobile hunter-gatherers, and they did live at this site for a significant period of time, probably on and off for at least a couple of hundred, if not more years. And then after occupation of the site, they used it as a burial ground.

WERTHEIMER: So this site, these people were in Jordan before any animals were domesticated, and then you open up a grave and you find a little fox.

Ms. MAHER: That's correct.

WERTHEIMER: Was it a surprise?

Ms. MAHER: It was indeed a surprise. In fact, when we were first excavating the site, we thought it might have been a dog. We thought we may have found an even earlier evidence for a domestic dog. And it wasn't until we had fully exposed the skeleton and done a very detailed, comparative morphological analysis. So looking at the features of the bones themselves and comparing it to modern and extinct canids in the region that we discovered it was indeed a red fox.

WERTHEIMER: Now, domestic dogs are descendent from wolves, isn't that right? I mean, these ancient people, if they had foxes, that's a whole different thing.

Ms. MAHER: It's true. Yes. The domestic dog does come from the wolf, and so foxes have no particular connection genetically to domestic dogs. But one thing that's quite interesting about foxes, and there have been a number of studies, especially in the last 50 to 100 years, that foxes are particularly easy to tame.

So what we are suggesting is that perhaps when people were beginning to domesticate animals, fox may actually have been one of a number of species that people attempted to domesticate before they kind of settled with the dog as man's best friend.

WERTHEIMER: What makes you think it was a pet as opposed to some sort of a -maybe a totem animal or something that was indicative of the tribe these people belonged to or something?

Ms. MAHER: Mm-hmm. A pet is only one of several possibilities. But one of the reasons why we suggested pet as actually one of many possibilities is because when we do find domestic dogs in human burials, we find them in a very similar position to what we have here. So we find complete or partial skeletons of dogs in very clear association with one individual in that grave.

And so we are suggesting that it probably was a more emotional relationship of one particular fox to one particular person.

WERTHEIMER: So is this a big deal?

Ms. MAHER: It is a big deal. I think the most significant things that comes from this site is that not only are we seeing these very early relationships between humans and other animals, but it also highlights a continuity in some of the practices, for example, mortuary practices, through time. So we're seeing these things, these similarities in mortuary practices and relationships to human and animals in a much greater time depth than we had previously.

WERTHEIMER: That is researcher Lisa Maher. Her paper on the prehistoric fox burial appeared in the journal PLoS ONE.

Thanks for joining us.

Ms. MAHER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.