Early dogs may have doubled in size to protect livestock

Archaeological evidence suggests domestic canines bulked up between 8000 and 2000 years ago

27 MAY 2022

Great Pyranese.jpeg
Ancient guard dogs may have looked something like Great Pyrenees, which are still used to protect flocks today. BRITTA PEDERSEN/PICTURE ALLIANCE VIA GETTY IMAGES

European dogs doubled in size from 8000 to 2000 years ago, a new study suggests. The beefing up may have helped our canine pals protect sheep from bears and even their direct ancestor—the gray wolf.

It’s “important” research, says Robert Losey, an archaeologist at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, who specializes in ancient human-animal relationships but was not involved with the work. “It’s one of the few long-term studies based in Europe looking at trends in dog size over time.”

Dogs were domesticated between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. Little is known about the size and roles of the earliest pups, though they were likely smaller than the gray wolves they came from. Scientists have speculated that ancient dogs may have helped humans hunt and pull sleds.

To see how the size—and jobs—of dogs changed over time, Martin Welker, a zooarchaeology curator at the Arizona State Museum, and his colleagues examined the remains of 14 dogs uncovered from ancient human settlements in Croatia. They also incorporated data from another 45 ancient dogs, some from Croatia and some from neighboring countries. The remains dated from about 8000 years ago in the Neolithic (or latter Stone Age) to the Roman period, about 2000 years ago.

Dogs had lived in the region before, but the first Neolithic farmers, who arrived in the area from Anatolia and the Middle East, brought a new breed with them. These new animals averaged about 15 kilograms—roughly the size of a border collie, the scientists found—though this was long before most of today’s breeds evolved.

By the Bronze Age, which started roughly 6000 years ago in this region, the average mass increased to about 17 kilograms. And by Roman times, the weight of the average dog had jumped to 24 kilograms, the team concluded last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

 a jaw bone

A domestic dog jaw bone discovered in a Neolithic village dating to about 7,000 years ago. SARAH MCCLURE

Historical documents—including ancient Roman records giving advice to farmers on herding and guard dogs—suggest even bigger dogs at the time, reaching at least 32 kilograms, nearly the weight of today’s great Pyrenees dogs.

Great Pyrenees are still used to guard European livestock—and, indeed, the researchers saw an evolution in responsibilities as ancient dogs got bigger.

Isotope analysis of the teeth of Neolithic sheep, which can reveal ancient diets, suggests that, as time went on, they grazed higher in the mountains. “In doing so, you expose them to larger risk from predators like wolves and bears,” Welker says, making guard dogs important.

Not every dog was a hulking protector: The Romans may have been the first people to breed lapdogs, according to depictions on murals and other evidence.

Researchers have focused on hunting dogs but know less about what happened when people began farming, which makes this study exciting, says Angela Perri, an expert on ancient dogs with PaleoWest, a private archaeology firm. Perri wasn’t involved with the study.

Guard dogs are key to that story, and they had “staying power,” she says. “Hunting dogs and sledding dogs now are pretty rare, but people are still using herding and livestock guarding dogs everywhere.”

See: https://www.science.org/content/art...ontent=alert&et_rid=255259432&et_cid=4261649&

The article really struck me for two reasons. First of all, we have three rescue dogs at home. Secondly, because we observed the single dark outline of an obvious dog emblazoned on the wall high above the early Native American ruins at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, which, according to the National Park Service, shows evidence of a human presence here going back over 11,000 years. Petroglyphs, dwellings carved into the soft rock cliffs, and standing masonry walls pay tribute to the early days of a culture that still survives in the surrounding communities.

Imagine, some 6,000 - 8,000 years ago, man was domesticating dogs, which grew in size to protect livestock. Very cool.

But I have often wondered about the dog, whose image is still visible on he rock face above the human ruins in Bandelier. Did that dog save a life, live an extraordinary time, was a superb hunter and protector? We'll never know. But it's fun to speculate on the reasons why a dog's obvious image was left and further, why it has remained visible for all these years. Bless our dogs.
I'll bet the first dog breeding was done for war and hunting, not herding. Any size can be used for herding. But war dogs need to be large and mean. I'll bet ancient armies had dog "companies".
Hayseed -

Note the sixth paragraph below, describing the use of war dogs by Marcus Aurelius, whose extensive history may be found in many sites. Marcus Aurelius, in full Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, original name (until 161 CE) Marcus Annius Verus, (born April 26, 121 CE, Rome [Italy]—died March 17, 180, Vindobona [Vienna, Austria] or Sirmium, Pannonia), Roman emperor (161–180), best known for his Meditations on Stoicphilosophy. Marcus Aurelius has symbolized for many generations in the West the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.

See: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marcus-Aurelius-Roman-emperor

Molossian hounds are actually noble animals with a long and distinguished history and were, early in history, used as war dogs.

This ancient and now extinct breed of hound was once bred in southern Europe. Described as having a wide, short muzzle and a heavy dewlap (skin around the neck), they were employed by man long before the days of the Roman Empire - by the Greeks, the Assyrians and probably even by the Bronze Age Sumerians.

It was the Molossi - a Greek kingdom founded by King Molossus, allegedly the grandchild of Achilles - who gave the dogs their name. Molossi lands stretched from north of Mount Pindus to the headwaters of the Thyamis river, on the Greek mainland, opposite Corfu. They adopted and trained the hounds for herding and for fending off cattle thieves or bandits.

Writing during the Roman Republic era, Polybius* writes of generals tying pots of Greek fire to the backs of dogs and sending them running - ablaze - at enemy cavalry. They would run under the horses, causing the riders to be thrown. Cunning and extremely cruel in equal measures.

It was probably Marcus Aurelius who first formally employed the breed (known to the Romans as Canis Molossus) in legionary warfare, often equipping them in protective spiked metal collars and mail armour, and training them to run in attack formations. The Molossus was used to fight tigers, lions, elephants, and men in battle. They were a common participant in the gladiatorial arena too.

So, I had a hunt around for some source evidence. The ancient texts do not explicitly detail Marcus Aurelius' use of 'War Dogs', but I did find this very interesting section of the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, a fantastic monument that depicts his Danubian campaigns:

A close up of the Marcus Aurelius Column in Rome showing the war dogs in battle.

"Never, with them on guard," says Virgil, "need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back."

Aristotle mentions them in The History of Animals, praising their bravery and physical superiority.

Later breeding saw the arrival of the Alaunt - so called because they were favoured by the Alani people (who originated on the Eurasian Steppe, but moved westwards into Europe during the Great Migration, oder die Grössevolkeranderung). Modern mastiffs are probably descended from these large and formidable creatures.

See: https://www.gordondoherty.co.uk/writeblog/thedogsofwar

* Polybius - (born c. 200 BCE, Megalopolis, Arcadia, Greece—died c. 118), Greek statesman and historian who wrote of the rise of Rome to world prominence.

Polybius was the son of Lycortas, a distinguished Achaean statesman, and he received the upbringing considered appropriate for a son of rich landowners. His youthful biography of Philopoemen reflected his admiration for that great Achaean leader, and an interest in military matters found expression in his lost book, Tactics. He enjoyed riding and hunting, but his knowledge of literature was rather specialized (apart from the historians) and his acquaintance with philosophy superficial.

Before 170/169, when he was hipparch (cavalry commander) in the Achaean Confederation, almost nothing is known of his career. But he then became involved in critical events. Encumbered by their war with Perseus of Macedonia, the Romans were watching for disloyalty in the Greek states. Although Polybius declared for open support of Rome and was sent as an envoy to the consul Quintus Marcius Philippus, Achaean help was rejected. After Perseus’ defeat at Pydna in 168, Polybius was one of 1,000 eminent Achaeans who were deported to Rome and detained in Italy without a trial.

In Rome, Polybius had the good fortune to attract the friendship of the great Roman general Scipio Aemilianus; he became Scipio’s mentor and through his family’s influence was allowed to remain in Rome. It is probable that Polybius accompanied Scipio to Spain in 151, went with him to Africa (where he saw the Numidian king Masinissa), and crossed the Alps in Hannibal’s footsteps on his way back to Italy. Shortly afterward, when his political detention had ended, Polybius joined Scipio at Carthage and was present at its siege and destruction in 146; and it is likely that he then undertook a voyage of exploration in the Atlantic, which is related in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

Meanwhile, hostilities had broken out between Achaea and Rome, and Polybius was in Corinth shortly after its destruction, in 146. He devoted himself to securing as favourable a settlement as possible for his countrymen and to reestablishing order; and, as the geographer Pausaniasstates, Achaean gratitude found expression in the erection of statues in his honour at Tegea, Pallantium, Mantineia, Lycosura—where the inscription declared that “Greece would never have come to grief, had she obeyed Polybius in all things, and having come to grief, she found succour through him alone”—and Megalopolis, where it was recorded that “he had roamed over all the earth and sea, had been the ally of the Romans, and had quenched their wrath against Greece.”

Of Polybius’ life after 146 little is known. At some date he visited Alexandria and Sardis. He is known to have discussed political problems with Scipio and Panaetius of Rhodes. He wrote a history of the Numantine War, evidently after 133 BCE, and also a treatise on the habitability of the equatorial region; but when he composed the latter is unknown.

See: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Polybius

It is always interesting to chart the many uses of the dog over time. But the unique breeds and sizes of war dogs must have presented a formidable sight. The Romans distinguished the following types of dogs: watchdog, hunting, luxury(peace), fighting and herding. The guard dog should be black in colour, rather large in height, and his voice should be loud and terrifying. Sharp dogs were valued here, but it was recommended to breed animals that were obedient to the household and not to overdo the dog’s fighting spirit. Columella** believed that a guard dog should scare a potential thief away with scary looks and menacing demeanour, not real militancy. He recommended black colour because during the day it gives the animal a deterrent appearance and makes it invisible to uninvited guests at night. Before entering a house, Romans often placed Cave Canem (“Beware of the Dog”) on the wall, often decorated with a black animal with bristling fur and baring fangs. (https://imperiumromanum.pl/en/article/dog-in-ancient-rome/ )

** Columella - Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella ( 12  4 – c. 70 AD) was a prominent writer on agriculture in the Roman Empire. His De re rustica in twelve volumes has been completely preserved and forms an important source on Roman agriculture, together with the works of Cato the Elder and Varro, both of whom he occasionally cites.

See: https://pantheon.world/profile/person/Columella/
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It's a wonderment why humans didn't bring the "dog" out of Africa with them. None of the African canines seemed to have been domesticated. Isn't that puzzling?

Were the extinct wild wolves present in N. Africa and the Levant in ancient times? Or ever in Africa? The physical evidence of dogs is only ~ 15K years. In Europe I believe. I haven't heard of dogs in N. or S. America.....of ancient times. Did N. and S. American Indians have dogs? What about China?

I think we have had dogs for much longer. If you are using the human migration out of Africa theory for reference. If it was cold weather that brought them together, why so recent the association? Humans have been in N. Europe for much longer. Maybe dogs were so common, no one thought of preserving or drawing one.

Something is out of kilter with the human evolution out of Africa theory. I believe that it was the domestication of animals that allowed true exploration and migration.

Vikings cargo-ed live food. Columbus brought live food with him. Ancient explorers did the same. It was the only choice for the unknown.