A Short History of Dogs (In Honor Of This 4,500 Year Old Cutie)

This is what Scottish dogs looked like 4,500 years ago.  (National Museums Scotland/Twitter)

Because Scottish people definitely have their priorities in order, Historic Environment Scotland (the organization responsible for maintaining many of the castles and landmarks there) recently reconstructed the face of a 4,500-year-old dog using bones on loan from Scotland's National Museums. After a bunch of diagnostic imaging, a little 3D printing, and some painstaking work by a forensic artist, we can now see what Celtic dogs looked like back in the day.

In what is probably not a massive surprise to dog-lovers anywhere, this Neolithic good boi—I've decided to call him Laddie—definitely deserves a boop.

At the time that Laddie was alive, humans hadn't taken to selectively breeding dogs on a grand scale yet, so he or she resembles the great grandparent of all dogs: the gray wolf. The jury is still out on why humans started domesticating and cohabiting with them 130,000 years ago—either some daredevil hunters needed a little back-up while fighting mastodon, or cunning canines wanted some food scraps and shelter—but the action changed the course of human history by forging the very first relationships between people and what would later become dogs.

Today, the majority of the breeds we take for granted are products of human meddling in the pursuit of ever-cuter creatures. After the English Kennel Club was founded in 1873, Victorians embraced controlled dog breeding with a gusto that continues to this day—it's on display every year at the Westminster Kennel Club and England's Crufts. To give you some examples of newer breeds, French Bulldogs made their debut at Westminster in 1896, Miniature American Shepherds arrived in 1968, and Puggles didn't get here until 2000.

This ridiculously cute Miniature American Shepherd was one of seven new breeds who only became eligible to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2016.
This ridiculously cute Miniature American Shepherd was one of seven new breeds who only became eligible to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2016. (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

So what happened in the interim? Where did Laddie come from? And which dog breeds have humans been lovin' on the longest? Genetic testing, DNA analysis and historical artifacts go a long way toward telling us. Breeds that have survived the ages (unlike, for example, the now-extinct pups that accompanied Native Americans from Siberia) look entirely different on a genetic level to more recent breeds of dogs. These so-called divergent breeds can be put into three broad categories, based on region of origin: Middle Eastern, Northern and Asian.

Sponsored

The Middle Eastern group includes the Afghan Hound (representations of which have been found in cave art dating back 4,000 years), and the Saluki, which is basically an Afghan Hound minus all that glossy fringe. Representations of the Saluki can be found on rocks dating all the way back to 10,000 B.C., and in the art of the Sumerian Empire dating between 7000 and 6000 B.C. By 2100 B.C., the Saluki had become the official Royal Dog of Egypt. (We know this because they started showing up on tombs right around that time.)  Salukis got themselves a whole new audience thousands of years later, right around 1840, when they were finally introduced to Europe.

This Saluki dog has an ornate gold collar because of its noble ancestry... and also because it's taking part in a Saluki beauty contest, which is 100% a real thing in Abu Dhabi.
This Saluki dog has an ornate gold collar because of its noble ancestry... and also because it's taking part in a Saluki beauty contest, which is 100% a real thing in Abu Dhabi. (KARIM SAHIB/AFP/GettyImages)

In the Northern group, we have the humble Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky, two breeds that are closely related to each other, and probably to Laddie too. They are believed to have been part of Eskimo settlements in the Arctic as far back as 4,500 years ago, and their tolerance of freezing conditions means they are still the go-to pooch for sled-related activities all over the world.

This Siberian Husky is making friends with this Chihuahua. The two are in good company—Chihuahuas are the descendants of Techichi dogs, who date back to 300 BC.
This Siberian Husky is making friends with this Chihuahua. The two are in good company—Chihuahuas are the descendants of Techichi dogs, who date back to 300 B.C. (YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

If you can believe it, the Asian group has an even higher gradient of floof than the Northern one. There's the lionesque Chow Chow, which dates back to Arctic Asia 3,000 years ago; there's the wrinkled and roly-poly Shar-Pei which had clay figurines in their likeness made as far back as 206 B.C.; and there's the New Guinea singing dog, a close relative of the Dingo and the ancestor of a wolf that became extinct around 5,000 years ago.

It’s probable that the Shar-Peis of 2000 years ago would frown on this behavior… but that’s because they frown on everything.
It’s probable that the Shar-Peis of 2,000 years ago would frown on this behavior… but that’s because they frown on everything. (Stephen Chernin/Dockers via Getty Images)

As for Laddie, he or she was found along with the skulls of 23 other dogs in an elaborate burial ground on the Orkney Islands, just off the coast of Scotland. Orkney is a treasure trove of Neolithic life, with still-standing remains of Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, as well as communal buildings and imposing stone henges. Historic Environment Scotland's Steve Farrar believes the way the dogs were buried there could be of great importance.

"The remains discovered at Cuween Hill suggest that dogs had a particularly special significance for the farmers who lived around and used the tomb about 4,500 years ago," Farrar said in a statement. "Maybe dogs were [the community's] symbol or totem. Perhaps they thought of themselves as the ‘dog people.’"

Sponsored

Apparently that's an ongoing theme throughout the ages.

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.