Wednesday, August 3, 2011

doggies of Siberia

This PLoS ONE publication by Ovodov et al. discusses a 33kya domestic dog from the site of Razboinichya Cave in Siberia. The evidence is pretty strong that the individual represents an early domesticate. The analyses included length of the snout, teeth crowding, tooth size, and various cranial metrics.

I'm not terribly surprised to see an early domestic dog in Siberia. We've long had evidence that dogs were domesticated in east and central Asia from at least 20kya. What I find interesting is the authors' acknowledgement that dog domestication in pre-Late Glacial Maximum contexts is controversial. There has been a tendency for archaeologists in general, and zooarchaeologists in particular, to ignore the evidence for early domestication in eastern Asia and to focus on the evidence for dog domestication in the Middle East, although that is much, much later. Why?

1- More English-speaking and/or Western archaeologists work in southwest Asian than in eastern Asia. Therefore, the literature on Middle Eastern domestication is more available in the West. Also, I do believe there is a tendency by some archaeologists to trust the literature produced by Western archaeologists more than the literature produced by non-Western archaeologists. These biases are blinding, and the lack of a common language is limiting.

2- A 12kyo Middle Eastern origin for dogs fits better with the narrative many textbooks and Intro to Archaeology professors are selling to their students. This narrative tends to be smoothly progressive (unlike the reality of dog domestication, which the Ovodov article suggests took place 33kya in Siberia, and then was abandoned, only to be taken up again much later.) The narrative also tends to be heavily focused on the Middle East as the cradle of domestication and "civilization", which in these texts is synonymous with Western civilization, regardless of the data. (This can lead to massive confusion among undergrads. I used a textbook for Intro to Archaeology that presented a standard narrative about southwest Asia as the earliest center of domestication, but in a table gave dates for domestication in East Asia that were earlier than those for southwest Asia. My students had no idea what to believe. I explained the "Middle East First" narrative was traditional. Like including a section about Lamark in a biology textbook.)

3- Even within zooarchaeology, only specialists in domestication spend much time thinking about the different ways that animals can be domesticated. We focus too much on the "neolithic package", the whole suite of interrelated plants and animals from a particular region. We do see developments of "neolithic packages" in some parts of the world. The Middle East is a good example, as is the Andean region. But dogs aren't part of that neolithic package. Their relationship to humans is significantly different from that of goats or llamas. The concept of the "neolithic package" can be useful if you're interested in the development of particular types of herding/farming economies, and the spread of those economies into new regions. But we shouldn't expect all plants and animals to be part of a package. Animals were domesticated for food, transportation, companionship, trash disposal, and reasons of commensality, among others. I hope the doggies of Siberia will help move us toward a more nuanced view of domestication, and a recognition of its spatial dispersion in its earliest stages.

Ovodov, Nikolai, et al.
2011 A 33,000-Year-Old Incipient Dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the Earliest Domestication Disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum. PLoS ONE

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