Dogs of Popol Vuh

Anthropology: How Dogs Became Man’s Best Friend


Anthropology or more specifically ethnocynology, which studies dogs, might help you find out how the canine animal became man’s best friend. It is easy to take for granted the profound bond we have with dogs and what they represent to us but both species were not always that close. Humans and wolves, the common ancestor of dogs, used to be fierce enemies. Bryan Cummins, author of First Nations, First Dogs: Canadian Aboriginal Ethnocynology (2002), said that even though dogs have been found in all human societies, it seems that the species has been ignored by anthropologists.

Genetic evidence suggests that dog directly comes down from wolves. How this fierce predator became our best friend? That is a long and elaborate story. Illustrations of dogs dating from the Bronze Age have been found on walls, tombs, and scrolls throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North America. More than 400 breeds of dogs produced by domestication have accompanied humans over the years. The dog, a version of a domesticated wolf, has evolved along with cultures which according to Cummins this domesticated animal is more “of culture” than “of nature”, and culture is the domain of anthropologists. Besides, the roles of dogs have been shaped differently depending on which societies they lived in. As a consequence, the domestic dog has its place within anthropology or more precisely, ethnocynology.

What is ethnocynology?

Ethnocynology is the study of dogs within their cultural contexts. Ethnocynology has been more present in the scientific world and beyond since the anthropologist, David Ian Howe popularized the term on his website and Instagram account. Informative blog posts enlighten us on the evolution of dogs and anthropological references involving the canine and past human societies.  Historical facts, various paleoart works, and a touch of humor are used to discuss different notions of the history of man’s best friend. Ethnocynology is “ the study of dogs within past and present human societies. 

Where does your canine best friend come from?

Ethnocynology, as part of anthropology, encompasses the theories of dog domestication, the role dogs play in various cultures, and the biological adaptions that have evolved between humans and dogs.” says Howe. His Ted-Ed video A brief history of dogs describes how over 2,000 years ago, Canis lupus familiaris, was found almost everywhere where the human species was also found. In ancient history, wherever you could find Homo Sapiens species, you could also find canine species. 

Grey Wolf. Image source: Milo Weiler on Unsplash

The Grey Wolf, the ancestor of domesticated dogs, has been around humans for many years. Actually wolves used to be one of man’s main rivals. Pushed at a crossroads, the wolves, especially those without a pack, evolved beside humans and became docile wolves. Later on, becoming humanities first domesticated animals. The dogs would develop into different sizes depending on the role it plays along their counterpart humans. Eventually, a real profound relationship will develop among dogs and humans and scientific evidence shows that both animals release oxytocin, the hormone of love, while in the presence of each other. If this isn’t real love, what is?

Burials of dogs since ancient Egypt

Dog buried at Berenice
Dog buried at Berenice. Image source: – M. OSYPINSKA

Graves of nearly 600 cats and dogs have been found in ancient Egypt and it might be known as the oldest pet cemetery in the world. We are able to tell from the discovery that people cared for pets through injury and illness, the same way we care about them today. Collar and other adornments have been found on burial sites. It appears that the treasured animals were laid gently in well-prepared trenches, covered with textiles or pieces of pottery resembling a kind of sarcophagus. Therefore, we can definitely assume that the concept of pets was not foreign to the ancient world.

“I’ve never encountered a cemetery like this,” says Michael MacKinnon, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Winnipeg who has studied the role of animals across the bygone Mediterranean but was not involved with the new work. “The idea of pets as part of the family is hard to get at in antiquity, but I think they were [family] here.”

Humans took good care of their animals in general, health, nutrition etc. Also, they took care of the burying experience, just as owners do today in modern days. It is suggested that people from Berenice definitely had a strong emotional bond with their pets. “They weren’t doing it for the gods or for any utilitarian benefit,” said archaeozoologist Marta Osypinska at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Instead, she argues that the relationship between people and their pets was “surprisingly close” to the one we see today.

The oldest remains of dog found in Alaska

The first domesticated dog crossed the threshold of America more than 10,000 years ago after the ice age. The breeds that entered Greenland from Siberia include Huskies, Malamutes, and sled dogs. Remains of the bones tell the story of the canine companion that entered an icy climate along with the first migrations of Americans. Other studies of ancient DNA have also shown that dog and human populations have similar histories regarding their migration and divergence.

The analysis of the fragments, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, provide important indications of the arrival of dogs in the Americas, and the different routes they followed alongside their humans and it also strengthen the very long and deep bond known nowadays between people and domesticated dogs. Throughout history dogs have rendered different purposes to people, hunters, guardians, alarm systems, bed warmers, and sources of emotional support. No wonder they acquired the title of man’s best friend!

Dogs of Popol Vuh

A scene with parts of the Popol Vuh illustrated (left to right) Chak has torn the lower jaws of otherworld critters. Dog appeals to Itzamná to be rejoined.

The Mayans told sacred stories through their pottery arts. In The Creation Myth of the Maya,  dogs are represented and seem already well established through the Mayan community. The story goes that the gods first created humans from clay, but they were simple and melted. Then they made them from wood, but they were dense and inconsiderate. The final form in which humans were made is corn. An interesting fact to note is that even before humans are created in their final form, dogs’ presence is imminent. It is known that the Mayans used domesticated dogs on a daily basis as a food source and hunting aide.

Also, dogs overall also played a decent role in Mayan mythology, religion, and spiritual rituals. Also, dog sacrifices were important in the political sphere for rituals of inaugurations and the founding of new civic religious centers. Dogs were found buried alongside humans in graves, as the legend goes to guide their owners to the afterlife.

The ancient Egyptian god, and Anubis; a representation of dogs

This is Anubis embalming a pharaoh

Anubis is the Greek name of the god of death, mummification, embalming, the afterlife, cemeteries, and tombs in ancient Egyptian religion, usually depicted as a canine or a man with a canine head. His actual name in Ancient Egyptian is “Inpu”, “Anpu” which means “To Decay”. He is the god responsible to let people reentered Duat, the Egyptian Underworld. The test used by the guardian of Duat to decide the worthiness of the mortals to enter the afterlife was the weighing of the heart. 

He is one of the oldest god of the Egyptian world. Anubis is not evil but solely there to guide souls from the living world to the world of dead. He was know to be loyal to mortal humans which is interesting as he is reprensented as a dog, and dog as we know them now, are our loyal companion. 

In other cultures such as the Aztek’s Nine Lands of the Dead and Xolotl, the dog god and also, Cerberus, the Three-Headed Dog of the Greeks were all mythic figures of dogs. It looks like there is a cross-cultural pattern with dogs having to do with death and the afterlife. Anubis’s representation was sometimes not clear as if he was a dog, a wolf, a jackal, or a fox. It could be that the Egyptian idea of Anubis is just an amalgamation of all their canine representations.

How did dogs become our best friend?

Man smiling next to wolf

It is difficult to imagine how humans could possibly see the scary teeth of a grey wolf and say why not make this killer animal our friend. Ended up that humans earned an incredible relationship with dogs. It became kind of a win-win situation for both species. Humans found many useful utilities to the domesticated dog such as a guardian, help with labors and hunting, and without a doubt a best friend. Dogs found an easy way to get food as instead of constantly hunting, humans started feeding the dog and also giving the animal a home to sleep and unconditional care.

Illustrations of dogs can be found repeatedly through history which collaborates the facts that dogs have been deeply a part of human life for a very long time. Representations such as god, guardian, worker, family member and nowadays often as an emotional pet, dogs have conquered all area of humans life.

Different breed for different human

It started of as a mysterious and scary wolf and there is now a bazillion different kinds of breeds of dogs. We can nowadays even choose a type of dog that matches our temper and that has the same qualities as his “hooman”. A dog that likes outdoor activities for the active personality, a more quiet dog for the introvert, a dog that loves people for the family type, literally there is a dog for everyone, or there is a human for every type of dog. It’s important to choose a dog that will be happy living in your family and that you know you will be able to treat well according to the dog’s traits and specificities.

Do your research before adopting a dog and make sure you know what caring for a domesticated animal imply time, cost, etc. So many dogs, cats, and other animals are unfortunately left behind each year by their owner. Thanks to many specialized associations such as SPCAs, these animals are rescued and given a chance of a second life. Adopting a pet is not an easy task and careful thinking and preparation must be undergone before agreeing to this long-term project as a dog’s usual lifespan is 10-13 years old. Your best friend will be in your life for a very long time.

Health and care of dogs

Like humans, dogs have a hygiene routine that needs to follow to stay in good health. As part of being a dog owner, it is your responsibility to make sure your dog’s health is taken care of and that he/she gets regular check-ups at the veterinarian clinic. Brushing your dog’s fur and teeth like yours is something to do routinely as well, There are even companies now where you can get insurance for your pet which definitely helps when the big vet’s bills start coming in either due to your dog’s old age or a sudden illness. Sometimes dogs need major surgeries such as heart, kidney, hips, etc which could be brutal on a tight budget.

Other things to considered…

As mentioned previously, adopting a dog or any other domesticated animal is not something to take lightly. Your schedule you will need to adapt your schedule in order to take care of your animal. Frequent walks, not always when it is more convenient for you, is also to be aware of. Also, places like hotels, restaurants, parcs and other facilities are not all dogs friendly so if you are an avid traveler and someone that is always on the move, you might need to do some research and improvise as to where you will be able to join with your furry friend. Sometimes comprise will be needed as you now form a duo and with you lovely companion.

Significance of dog studies in anthropology

In essence, through ethnocynology, the study of dogs within their cultural contexts, the story of domesticated dogs unfolds. We have an understanding now that dogs were the first domesticated animals even before kittens, chickens, or cows. Science teaches us about the grey wolf, the migrations, and the strong human bond with the canine type. Dogs have been part of human societies for a very long time and it’s interesting to see how it came to be that way. We take our relationship with the canine species for granted when in reality this Before becoming man’s best friend, dogs were savage, territorial, and basically one of humans’ fierce enemies. Think about that next time you cuddle with your little ball of fur.

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