People began to live alongside dogs and may also have used them for hunting as early as 11,500 years ago in what is now northeast Jordan, according to a study.
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and University College London in the UK suggest that the introduction of dogs as hunting aids may explain the dramatic increase of hares and other small prey in the archaeological remains at the site.
Dogs were domesticated by humans as early as 14,000 years ago in the Near East, but whether this was accidental or on purpose is so far not clear.
The study, published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, suggests that humans valued the tracking and hunting abilities of early dogs more than previously known.
The research on animal bones from the 11,500 year old settlement Shubayqa 6 in northeast Jordan not only suggests that dogs were present in this region at the start of the Neolithic period, but that humans and dogs likely hunted animals together.
"The study of the large assemblage of animal bones from Shubayqa 6 revealed a large proportion of bones with unmistakable signs of having passed through the digestive tract of another animal; these bones are so large that they cannot have been swallowed by humans, but must have been digested by dogs," said Lisa Yeomans from the University of Copenhagen.
"The dogs were not kept at the fringes of the settlement, but must have been closely integrated into all aspects of day-to-day life and allowed to freely roam around the settlement, feeding on discarded bones and defecating in and around the site," Yeomans said.
When researchers sifted through the analysed data, they also noted a curious increase in the number of hares at the time that dogs appeared at Shubayqa 6.
Hares were hunted for their meat, but Shubayqa 6's inhabitants also used the hare bones to make beads. The team thinks that it is likely that the appearance of dogs and the increase in hares are related.
"The use of dogs for hunting smaller, fast prey such as hares and foxes, perhaps driving them into enclosures, could provide an explanation that is in line with the evidence we have gathered.
"The long history of dog use, to hunt both small as well as larger prey, in the region is well known, and it would be strange not to consider hunting aided by dogs as a likely explanation for the sudden abundance of smaller prey in the archaeological record," said Yeomans.
"The shift may also be associated with a change in hunting technique from a method, such as netting, that saw an unselective portion of the hare population captured, to a selective method of hunting in which individual animals were targeted. This could have been achieved by dogs," she said.