Dogs of the Deceased

Recently in the archaeological news realm, there has been an increase in the number of canine related finds. Dogs are being found buried as companions for the dead, buried in human-like ways, and buried as food for the dead.

A number of burials have been found where humans are accompanied by a canine companion in various countries. Burials excavated in Central Valley California from the early 18th century show that humans were frequently buried with their dog curled up next to them. For this Native American group, dogs served as protection, a warning against intruders, and working companions during hunts. This special relationship carried into the afterlife. No pet cemeteries were ever found, the only dog burials are those found in tandem with human ones. There is debate over whether the dogs would be sacrificed when their masters died, or if they were included in the burial later. Archaeologists tend to agreed with the former, stating that there is evidence in the number of the canine companions of their heads being crushed, perhaps by large rocks, and the owners taking the dogs with them as burial of all property was common. However, this statement goes against earlier ones which argued that the dog was seen as a member of the family. Regardless of the way in which the dogs end up in the burial, their inclusion does show that there is a special relationship (Weisner 2011).

An earlier form of this type of canine-human burial is that of the individual found with a fox. It was argued from this that foxes represented the first “man’s best friend”, but there is a lack of evidence for this. For a full writeup on this burial, see my post on it here.

Earlier this year, a 7,000 year old dog burial was found in Siberia. What makes this burial unique, is that archaeologists have interpreted the canine burial as being done in a way which suggests they saw it as a social being. The dog had activity markers that suggested a life of hard work and also sustained a number of work related injuries. This is argued based on the presence of healed microfractures in the limbs of the dog, suggestive of hunting- though there is no conclusive evidence that this was done in tandem with humans. The other evidence that points to this dog being regarded as a social being rather than food or pet is that it was buried with the same types of grave goods that humans from this region and period were buried with, and was also buried in the same type of context. Losey, an associate professor on the excavation argues “I think the act of treating it as a human upon its death indicates that people knew it had a soul, and that the mortuary rites it received were meant to ensure that this soul was properly cared for”. Stable isotope analysis of the dog also showed that his diet was similar to that of people from the same cemetery. The archaeologists do not think that this is the only interpretation- but argue that it is the most probable based on evidence (Viegas 2011).

In China, dogs served a very different purpose in the mortuary context: food for the afterlife. Three weeks ago an excavation uncovered a 2,400 year old stew within a bronze cooking vessel that had been placed within a tomb. Stews and meals are not rare findings in this region within tombs, but it is rare to find the stew completely intact. The bones were assessed by a faunal archaeologist and found to be those of a subadult canine. The archaeologists also found a wine-like liquor in a second pot. One stated that “Whoever the tomb owner was, he must have loved liquor and meat, so his sons wished he could still enjoy the feast in his grave.” (Xinhua 2011)

Another canine find within a mortuary context is the well known Catacombs of Anubis, which while discovered in the 19th century have only recently been explored and analyzed. The tunnels within the catacombs contain the mummified remains of thousands of dogs, all of which were meant as offerings to the god Anubis. While dates for use of the catacombs are varied, cults like this were most popular during the Roman period 747 BCE – 1st Century CE. Unlike the first three examples of burials with animals, the relationship between the dogs and humans is different here. The animals were worshipped and seen as offerings, not as companions to be memorialized (Past Horizons 2011).


In interpreting human burials it is extremely important to look at the full burial context, understand the historical and regional context, and also avoid making any inferences that are biased based on the beliefs of the archaeologist. In interpreting dog burials, the same is true. We need to be careful that we do not interpret their burials in the same way we would interpret human burials, and cannot assume that all dogs and humans had the same types of relationships that we do today. What I like about these articles is that they show a range of interpretations about the similar type of burial.

Works Cited

Viegas 2011. Prehistoric Dog Lived, Died Like Humans. Discover News.

Xinhua 2011. Dog Stew pot found. China Daily.

Weisner 2011. Indians, dogs were companions in life and death. The Daily News online.

Past Horizons 2011. Tunnels contain thousands of mummified dogs. Past Horizons.

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