Dogs Weren’t Always Man’s Best Friend: Fox Found Buried With Its Owner in Ancient Grave - Yuri A / - Yuri A /

Dogs may be man’s best friend now, but a startling find in an ancient grave in Argentina proves that may not have always been the case. Archaeologists have discovered the skeletal remains of what seems to be a domesticated fox buried alongside its owner in a 1500-year-old grave at a Patagonian burial site. 

Researchers believe the fox was not eaten because the animal had no cut marks on its bones.
An examination of the fox’s remains indicated that it ate the same food as the humans of that period. Scientists report that the combination of the fox’s placement in the grave and its diet suggested it was tame and possibly kept as a pet. 

An in-depth analysis of ancient DNA and radiocarbon dating confirmed the fox was a now-extinct species known as Dusicyon avus. It thrived around 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago and survived until its extinction 500 years ago. Dusicyon avus was around the size of a modern German shepherd, although it was less bulky and only weighed around 35 pounds. 

Dusicyon avus was predatory by nature, but scientists examining the one found in the grave discovered that it shared a diet similar to what humans were eating at the time. Researchers point to this as evidence that the fox either survived eating scraps found at human encampments or was fed by the community.  

It’s not the first time foxes have been found coexisting with humans. The idea of foxes as pets in South America matches evidence from fox burials found in Europe and Asia, according to Dr. Aurora Grandal-d’Anglade, a paleobiologist at the Universidade da Coruña in Spain. Although not involved in the recent study, Grandal-d’Anglade has previously described Bronze Age graves in the Iberian Peninsula containing dozens of dogs and four foxes buried with humans. The similar arrangement of the foxes and dogs in the graves suggests that foxes were also considered human companions. 

While the species was once common in southern South America, it had not been found in this part of Patagonia before its discovery at the burial site. Hunter-gatherers in the region usually stayed within a radius of about 44 miles, so the fox must have been living in that area, according to the study. 

The discovery also negated the possibility that Dusicyon avus was driven to extinction because of interbreeding with dogs brought to South America by Europeans. Examination of the fox’s remains suggested that while this interbreeding produced offspring, those offspring would be infertile. This is common among interbred species, such as donkeys and horses. 

Still, dogs may have contributed to the extinction of foxes by introducing diseases and competing with them for food.  

While it is commonly thought that humans only kept dogs as herding and hunting animals, the poignant burial reveals something different. Animals weren’t just useful tools; they were companions and beloved friends. 

Various ancient cultures practiced animal burials for different reasons. For instance, around 10,000 years ago in ancient Siberia, dogs were often buried with humans, highlighting the close bond between them, and were sometimes laid to rest with tools, ornaments, or toys.  

In ancient China, dogs held high status and were frequently consecrated through canine sacrifice. Rituals included killing dogs, wrapping them in reed mats or lacquered coffins, and adorning them with bells, with the belief that these sacrifices could drive out pestilence, bring calm weather, or ward off evil.  

During the Iron Age in Britain, dogs were seen as companions and guardians and were considered high-value sacrifices to the gods. Similarly, the ancient Celts buried their animals with them, with remains found in 2,000-year-old graves suggesting that some animals were used as food offerings while others were much-loved companions. 

In ancient Egypt, dog burials were common, with dogs being mummified and placed alongside their owners. Similarly, the ancient Celts buried their animals with them, with remains found in 2,000-year-old graves suggesting that while some animals were used as food offerings, others were much-loved companions.  

Burial sites have been found with many animal species, including horses, alongside their humans. In Verona, Italy, ancient humans were buried alongside their horses. These horses likely held significance beyond mere food offerings. Vikings buried horses alongside owners as status symbols, beloved pets, and a way for warriors to ride into the afterlife. Horses have been found in Celtic graves as well. 

Grandal-d’Anglade explains that finding pets buried throughout different societies and continents indicates that “keeping animals for companionship is an ancestral trait in humans.” 

It’s comforting to know that, while centuries and mysteries divide us from our ancestors, the shared love of our animals binds us together.