Ancient Californians Revered — And Likely Ate — Dogs, Canine Graves Reveal

ancient dog burial

In California’s long, rich prehistoric record, among the most intriguing legacies that archaeologists have discovered is the tradition of burying canines — sometimes with humans, sometimes with garbage, sometimes in lavish graves affectionately appointed with seashells or crystals.

Though all kinds of animals have been found in gravesites throughout the ancient West, canids — or members of the dog family — account for more than half of the animal burials in California.

Previous research had concluded that many of these creatures were coyotes or wolves. But the first genetic tests done on a sample of them has found that the revered animals were domestic dogs.

Not surprising, perhaps, given dogs’ long-standing relationship with humans. But many canids discovered in California graves were also often found to have been ritually killed, dismembered, and sometimes eaten.

Dog burial from California’s Santa Clara Valley (Byrd et al., JAS)

The discovery of the ritual animals’ identity “provides new insight into the complex interrelationship between humans and canids,” according to a new study in the Journal of Archaeological Science, “and reveals a more prominent role for dogs than previously envisioned.”

A team of anthropologists and biologists, led by Dr. Brian Byrd of Davis, California, extracted DNA from the teeth of six animals found at different burial sites around the San Francisco Bay area, dating to around a thousand years ago.

The remains had all been excavated years earlier and borrowed from museums or universities, but they came from a wide range of contexts.

One dog had been carefully buried with the baculum — or penis bone — of a harbor seal. Two others were found in middens, or prehistoric trash heaps, and had been dismembered before they were buried.

And although some of these specimens had already been deemed to be wolves or coyotes, based solely on their skeletal structure, the DNA results revealed all 6 to be members of Canis familiaris.

This suggests that many of California’s other canid graves, including ones that show evidence of violent deaths, also hold the remains of household dogs.

“It appears that may of these dogs may have been ritually killed as part of specific prehistoric ceremonial activities,” the team writes.

Dog found buried in a shell mound in Southeast San Francisco Bay (Byrd et al./JAS)

Throughout central California, the team notes, many buried dogs have been found to have been ritually dismembered, with their hindquarters cut off. In the Bay Area’s Patwin nation, meanwhile, canids were known to be killed for their blood, to be used in initiation rituals. And among the Central Miwok, an extreme grievance or injustice in the community was sometimes assuaged by the ritual killing of a dog.

Historical accounts also describe dogs being butchered and served as food to visitors — a testament to both the guests’ and the dogs’ importance — and throughout the West, dogs have been used as a source of “famine food,” when no other source of protein was available.

The new research doesn’t weigh in on what fates the six dogs that were studied had to face. As Byrd put it to Western Digs in an interview, “We were not studying the faunal remains to explore butchering, et cetera — we were looking at DNA to determine species.”

Although two of the dogs seem to have been intentionally dismembered, not enough is known about  how and in what condition they and the others were originally found to draw more conclusions.

While “one working hypothesis” might be that the dismembered dogs had been eaten, he said, “we can provide no insight into these good questions.”


• “The role of canids in ritual and domestic contexts: new ancient DNA insights from complex hunteregatherer sites in prehistoric Central California,” Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 40

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