Comparison of Canaan dogs and dog depictions in the rock art of Shuwaymis, which show dogs with a spot and a chest coloration (all photos courtesy Guagnin et al)

A new study of prehistoric rock art reveals how hunters in the Arabian Peninsula pursued prey with dogs over 8,000 years ago — and even controlled their packs with leashes. The engravings represent the earliest evidence for dogs on the Arabian Peninsula and might even stand as the earliest depictions of canines yet, as Science first reported. Found at two sites a few years ago — at a wadi at Shuwaymis and at the desert oasis of Jubbah — the stylized canines predate previous evidence for dogs in the region by over 2,000 years. As for the carved leashes, those simple lines are the earliest known evidence of leads in prehistory.

Composite photograph of a panel at Shuwaymis with damaged in the center with hunters and dogs

The analysis, led by Maria Guagnin, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, was published this month in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. Researchers counted around 400 dogs in total across both sites, and even note that the good boys share similar features to the modern-day Canaan dog.

“All of the dogs display characteristic pricked ears, short snouts, deeply-angled chests, and a curled tail, appearing to be of the same ‘type,’” the scientists write, noting that although “the depicted dogs are reminiscent of the modern Canaan dog, it remains unclear if they were brought to the Arabian Peninsula from the Levant or represent an independent domestication of dogs from Arabian wolves.”

Notably, some dogs are even carved in a manner that gives them coat markings such as chest colorations and spots. They are also depicted as individual creatures, in various stances and tail positions; the artists even differentiated between male and female canines.

“This may indicate the artists were documenting the general range of variation in local dogs or depicting individual dogs known to them,” the researchers write.

Panel in Shuwaymis west showing a complex stratigraphic sequence with dog engravings and human figures superimposed with multiple cattle  

Also telling is the way the leashes are portrayed. The restraints appear on only a number of dogs and tether them to the hunters’s waists, allowing their owners to wield bows and arrows. As the researchers explain, leashed dogs might have served to protect not only their human companion but also valuable dogs trained to track the scent of prey. But they might also represent younger dogs who are less experienced or even older dogs who are more easily injured.

“This suggests not only are some human populations controlling their hunting dogs by the Pre-Neolithic, but that some dogs may perform different hunting tasks than others,” the researchers write. “Some may be used only to track prey scents, while others are used to corral and attack prey, protect human hunters, or help haul meat back to camp.”

This meat came from a wide variety of sources, as the rock art reveals. The panels at Jubbah and Shuwaymis show canines chasing after cattle, oryxes, equids, aurochs, cattle, wild camel, and even a lion. Some scenes even depict the aftermath of a successful hunt, recording dogs that bite the necks and bellies of ibexes and gazelles.

The carvings illuminate how early domestic dogs behaved and how humans worked with them to survive, but they are are also simply beautiful pictures that, I’d argue, convey amity between man and dog. Now, to further clarify this prehistoric relationship as well as more precisely date the rock art, researchers will have to conduct more fieldwork in the region, to try and uncover actual remains of early domestic dogs.

Satellite images of Shuwaymis (bottom left) and Jubbah (bottom right) (all images are Google Earth, Landsat/Copernicus: Top: Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO. Bottom left: Image ©CNES/Astrium and ©2016 DigitalGlobe)

Section of a panel in Shuwaymis showing two ibex (center and left) being attacked by eight dogs

Hunting scene with lion and two dogs as well as tools that might have been used to butcher or skin animals

Scene from the western embankment in Shuwaymis depicting three gazelles being hunted by four dogs

Panel at Shuwaymis showing a hunting scene with an equid and its young, surrounded by dogs

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...