Carved into a sandstone cliff on the edge of a bygone river, a hunter draws his bow for the kill. He is accompanied by thirteen dogs, each with their own markings, two with lines running from their necks to the man’s waist. A new study reveals these engravings may date back more than 9,000 years, making them the earliest depictions of dogs in the archaeological record. The carvings are from northwestern Saudi Arabia where archaeologists have catalogued more than 1400 rock art panels containing nearly 7000 animals and humans Settlers began entering this part of Saudi Arabia about 10,000 years ago. Early engravings of women, switched to scenes of cattle, sheep and goats when the region’s hunter-gatherers became herders around 7000 to 8000 years ago. In between these eras are the early hunting dogs – medium-sized, with pricked up ears, short snouts, and curled tails— hallmarks of domestic canines. All of the dogs look a lot like the Canaan
dog, a largely feral breed that has called the desert home for thousands of years, an indication that these ancient people were breeding dogs adapted for hunting in the desert. Researchers found one aspect of these carvings to be especially striking – the leashes. This would have been early days for any type of dog, as the animal may have been first domesticated as recently as 15,000 years ago Until now, the earliest evidence for such restraints came from a wall painting in Egypt dated to about 5500 years ago Arabian hunters may have used the leashes to keep valuable dogs close and protected, or they could have been a way to train new dogs. Or the lines might not be leashes at all, but instead be just a symbolic depiction of the bond between humans and dogs and there is still some doubt about the dating of engravings. It’s possible that the engravings were made more recently, and that the artists were just representing scenes from their cultural past. To confirm the timing, scientists will need to link the images to a well-dated archaeological site, a difficult task in a region with a spotty archaeological record. If these engravings do indeed prove to be as old as they seem, they would offer a fascinating insight into how these ancient hunter-gatherers used the bond between man and dog to brave the harsh climate of the Arabian Desert.