When you think of pets, maybe a picture of a faithful and friendly Golden Retriever comes to mind, or a soft, purring kitty that curls up beside you on the couch.
Domestication is, in the timeline of human history, relatively recent—if you can call 12,000 years “recent.” Still, history tells us stories of ancient humans who kept lions and elephants as pets. What was socially acceptable in ancient times bears little relation to what is socially acceptable (or practical) now, but one thing is clear: The emotional bond between humans and their pets is as old as the establishment of communities and societies.
ManyPets compiled a list of historical findings demonstrating a difference or change in care between work animals and domestic animals in five ancient cultures, combining information from history reports and news articles.
In the Chauvet Cave in southern France, footprints dating back 26,000 years of a young child walking with a canine are preserved in the living rock. In what was once Ain Mallaha, Israel (near Galilee), archeologists found the grave of a man from the Natufian period (around 15,000 to 11,500 years ago) buried with a small fox. This same region has been the location of several human-canine burial discoveries over recent years, as well.
Further examples demonstrating the substantial role pets played in many ancient cultures have been unearthed in Egypt, where a Roman-era pet cemetery was recently found, and in Kazakhstan, where an ancient horse corral dating back 5,600 years points to the domestication of an animal traditionally used for meat. Such variegated and dispersed evidence shows that keeping pets as loyal companions, hunters, guards, spirit guides, and even cherished family members dates back further than most people appreciate.
Europe and Ancient Germany
Europe has played a significant role in canine evolution as both the home to the oldest Paleolithic remains and the center of contemporary dog breeding. When archeologists re-examined the remains of a domesticated dog in Bonn-Oberkassel, Germany, they discovered the animal had suffered from oral cavity lesions indicating canine distemper, a degenerative disease that ultimately led to a shortened life span.
Perhaps more interestingly, the dog was buried with two humans, as well as the extracted molar of another dog. Most owners in that era were thought to domesticate animals solely for their usefulness in guarding, hunting, and other utility-based activities. However, during the disease bouts, it would have been difficult for the dog to survive, let alone serve in a hunter-gatherer capacity, without intensive human care.
Researchers posited the animal was cared for not out of a sense of utility, but emotional connection. This indicates pet owners in the Late Pleistocene era (about 14,000 years ago) were emotionally attached to their pets.
Further evidence discovered in an ancient cave in southwestern Germany suggests the domestication of wolves, a likely progenitor of dogs, began perhaps even earlier, approximately 17,000 years ago.
Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, pets were considered gifts from the gods to be cared for until death. In Mesopotamian art, dogs are shown as both hunters and friends.
According to the ancient historian Herodotus, dogs and cats were such an important part of ancient Egyptian culture that if a dog died of natural causes, everyone in the house was obligated to shave their entire body, including the head. And if a cat died, everyone had to shave their eyebrows only.
An early mural from around 3500 B.C. depicts a man walking his collared dog on a leash, indicating the Egyptians used dog collars like those first designed and used in Mesopotamia. The collars were made to fit all of the different breeds that existed and were popular among Egyptians during that time, among them salukis, basenjis, and hounds.
Dogs and cats were popular pets in Egyptian households, but other animals such as monkeys and birds (especially falcons) were also kept as pets.
Mediterranean and Ancient Rome
Tales of the influence and power of dogs and their wolf ancestors pervade all of Roman history. Among the most popular is the tale of Romulus and Remus, fabled founders of Rome who, after being rescued by a river god, were suckled by a she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker.
Dogs were seen as protectors not only from intruders and wild animals but also from supernatural threats. However, different breeds were used for diverse purposes. There were dogs used in the Roman army, primarily mastiff breeds, and a house’s dogs were often fed from the table and accompanied their masters almost everywhere they went. The collars the dogs wore revealed their purpose.
Children were commonly depicted alongside animals in vases and bas-reliefs. Caged birds were also trendy in the Greek and Roman worlds, especially among women. It was a unique part of Roman culture that was considered a display of luxury, although it wasn’t strictly for the elite; families of modest means could also keep birds, as they were relatively inexpensive relative to dogs or other animals.
Snakes were also popular pets. For the Romans, if an animal was accepted as a pet, it meant a life of luxury and care. Otherwise, it would end up as a sacrifice, in the arena, or in a hunting game.
Animals in ancient China were mainly valued for their practical purposes. Dogs were the first domesticated animals in China, their introduction dating back approximately 16,000 years, and they were employed for hunting and kept as pets.
The most ferocious were called lion dogs or fu dogs, and traces of their stature in ancient Chinese society can be seen today in statuary. Dogs are one of the Chinese zodiac’s 12 animals and they were considered to be a divine gift—yet China’s relationship with dogs was fraught. Dogs were also used as a source of food and ritual sacrifice. When vows and allegiances were sealed, dog blood was one of the most vital components.
As for their feline counterparts, archeological evidence from Chinese villages shows cats were used to keep vermin away from local grain stores, and domestication shortly followed.
Most of the dogs of early Native American culture were wolflike in appearance and were used to carry heavy loads and pull sleds.
As with the ancient Chinese, Native Americans were also known to use dogs as a food source. Despite this fact, the life of a cherished dog was respected much like that of a fellow human, and in death, burials were formal.
Most of the genetic samples collected by researchers of early American dogs show significant similarities to American wolves. It has been posited that the first North American dogs came from Siberia some 16,000 years ago, though concrete evidence shows their presence as of 10,000 years ago.
Although researchers believe there is still much to learn about America’s early dogs, they speculate that European colonists and their dogs may have attempted to eradicate Native American dogs during waves of settlement.