Ancient Bond Between Human and Animals Revealed in 14,000-Year-Old Diseased Dog Teeth

Arctic wolf pups play in Alert, Nunavut. Ancient dogs came from wolves, and the ancient people cared for them. Andrew Johnson / Flickr

How can you understand the emotional bond between humans and animals just by looking at old bones? The remains of an ancient puppy who survived distemper can help.

In 1914, a group of workers found a 14,000-year-old grave site that included humans and dogs. The fact that people buried dogs in the same place as their dead indicates that they cared about the animals, and that they may have been pets. The remains of a puppy found at the site tells even more of a story.

In a study published recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science, archaeologists detailed the information they found in the skeletonized jaws of a seven-month-old puppy found at the site.

Veterinarian/archaeologist Luc Janssens unraveled a mystery in looking at the ancient puppy's teeth. Janssens, first author on the study, found that at 19 weeks of development, the puppy showed evidence of having a disease that we now call canine distemper. Left to fend for itself, this puppy would have died. But, it overcame the illness and lived nine more weeks, as Janssens could tell from the fact that it continued to grow out its teeth.

That means that the humans who lived with the puppy most likely took good care of it in the hopes that it would pull through.

"That would mean keeping it warm and clean and giving it food and water, even though, while it was sick, the dog would not have been of any practical use as a working animal," Janssens explained in a press release. "This, together with the fact that the dogs were buried with people who we may assume were their owners, suggests that there was a unique relationship of care between humans and dogs as long as 14,000 years ago."

Today, the bond that people share with their dogs goes beyond the practical value of having a hunting, farming, or otherwise working animal. This discovery indicates that the bond between man and man's best friend runs deep.