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Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Mummified Dogs in Ancient Egypt: Were They Pets, Sacrifices or Wolves? - Archaeology -

Mummified Dogs in Ancient Egypt: Were They Pets, Sacrifices or Wolves?

Identifying the species or breeds of long-dead canines before the era of fashionable disfigurement in dogs can be difficult. Now a new technique finds some answers in the Saqqara necropolis of Egypt

Credit: Photos: Ricardo Liberato/ Wikimedia Commons; Ingimage; Jrs Jahangeer/ Shutterstock. Artwork by Anastasia Shub,1162,x0,y0&height=830&width=1429

When the ancient Egyptians mummified dogs, what dogs exactly were they mummifying?

Inquiring minds want to know – an aspiration stymied over the years by the difficulty in distinguishing wild from domestic canid, let alone one breed of dog from another, by comparing skeletal remains.

It turns out that some of the mummified canids were wolves, according to a paper published by Colline Brassard of the Natural History Museum in Paris with colleagues in the Springer journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

אנטומיה של כלב
A skeletal view of a dog's anatomy.Credit: Wilhelm Ellenberger and Hermann Baum

Which wolves? Analysis of the bones detected the gray wolf of the Middle East and the golden wolf of Africa, the team writes. Their conclusions are based on a three-dimensional, landmark-based, geometric morphometric approach – which means they mapped out the shape of the skulls.

This is the first time the gray wolf has been identified among the many millions of animals the Egyptians mummified, the team says.

Four distinct breeds of dog. Not so easy to identify thousands of years later, though.Credit: Mary Bloom, American Kennel Club

'Iwiw,' says the dog

Why has the identification of the mummified canids of ancient Egypt been a question? Because until the point that they've been bred into skeletal disfigurement, long-dead dogs tend to look alike.

It's trivial to tell a bulldog's skull from a wolf's. It's less trivial to tell one brachycephalic breed from another. You can tell a dachshund's skeleton from a Great Dane's using your eyes, but barring physical extremes caused by deliberately breeding dogs for functionality or cuteness, even scientific methods such as biometric analyses (nailing down unique characteristics) may prove unhelpful.

It bears adding that today's really extreme forms of doggie deformations – like the stretched snout of the Borzoi, the truncated limbs of the dachshund and just about everything to do with the bulldog – are mostly a modern artifact of extreme breeding as of the 18th century.

All creatures great and small.Credit: Elf / Wikimedia

Back in ancient Egypt, many of the millions of animals mummified and dedicated to deities were canid. Millions upon millions of dogs were sent thusly to the next world. In 2015, catacombs at the vast Saqqara necropolis were found to contain vast numbers of animal mummies – estimated at more than 8 million – of which most were dogs. The catacombs also contained mummified cats, mongooses, falcons and other animals, researchers reported at the time.

The catacombs were reportedly associated with a temple to Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death. Some dog burials at the site are thought to have been of cherished pets and some to have been obsequious offerings to the deity – possibly products of ancient puppy-mills breeding fodder for sacrifice.

Anyway, dogs there were aplenty at Saqqara, and now we gain insight into what kinds there were based on that three-dimensional close analysis of skulls that didn't disintegrate over time or become turned into latter-day fertilizer.

The researchers compared the deceased dog skulls with those of modern canids, including 38 different domestic breeds, feral dogs (mutts) and 157 wild canids in the Near East and Africa that were likely to have shown up in ancient Egypt.

מומיות של כלב וקוף
Monkey and dog mummies, Cairo Egyptian MuseumCredit: Namiac

Then they compared 41 mummified dog skulls to this data. Unshockingly, they identified "dogs" – but they also detected the presence of African golden wolves and, for the first time, Near Eastern gray wolves.

Separate work detected the presence of other mummified canidae too: smaller ones – foxes and jackals.

As for the dogs, at least some were clearly as cherished as some pooches in the modern era.

"The dog who was the guard of His Majesty. Abuwtiyuw was his name. His Majesty ordered that he be buried, that he be given a coffin" – inscription for pharaoh's dog, 6th Dynasty Egypt

Abuwtiyuw is one of the earliest known animal names in the historic record. What his name means isn't known, but some surmise that it's based on the onomatopoeic version of the dog's bark in ancient Egypt – iwiw or abuw. (In modern Hebrew, the dog says "how how" or "hav hav", depending who you ask).

Said Abuwtiyuw went to the afterlife shrouded in fine linens: the pharaoh ordered this so the dog would be honored before Anubis, according to interpretation of translation of the ancient text.

אנוביס מטפל ב מומיה
Anubis tending a mummy. Tombs of the Kings, Thebes.Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Trust

A cryptic wolf

So, pet burials, cremations and so on are not necessarily a modern mishegas fueled by capitalist overconsumption, and in the case of dogs, they go back, in fact, more than 13,000 years.

It is not known which pharaoh so loved his dog: the inscription, which had been "repurposed" in another tomb, does not say. There is also speculation as to Abuwtiyuw's breed, not least because his body and grave were never found, only that stolen inscription, in 1935.

By the time Abuwtiyuw lived and died about 4,280 years ago, the peoples of the Middle East, including the Egyptians, had developed ideals of canine beauty and/or functionality and were creating breeds such as sighthounds (dogs with great gifts of vision) such as the Saluki. These animals were already some distance from the origin of all this – the wolf. Which was also found in Saqqara, as said.

Just to dispel any confusion, does Egypt even have wolves? It sure does – genetic research found that the Egyptian jackal is not a subset of African golden jackals and is actually a member of the gray wolf family, the only one in Africa. Nor are they exclusively Egyptian: these little canids are also found in Ethiopia and possibly other neighboring countries too.

The skull of a bulldog. This can easily be distinguished from a German shepherd or wolf skull.Credit: Joey Sleaze / Wikimedia

At the end of the day, argument persists over the role of dogs (and cryptic wolves) in ancient Egyptian society. Symbol? Votive offering? Companion/servant? Pet? Meal? All of the above?

Images of dogs appear in tombs and artwork, statuary and children's toys. The earliest known evidence of domesticated dogs in Egypt dates to about 6,500 years ago – though around the geographical corner, pottery fragments showing dog images were found in Khuzistan, Iran, from 8,000 years ago. And that pales compared with burials in Israel of a man with two small dogs from 13,000 years ago and a woman with a puppy 12,000 years ago. Love, archaeologists surmise, may have been involved.

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