There is a small bit of land, only about a square kilometer, that has added a new wrinkle to the story of animal domestication. This bit of land located in Northern Jordan, just southeast of the Sea of Galilee near the banks of the Jordan River, is home to an archaeological site known as 'Uyun al-Hammam. One key feature of this site, excavated in 2005, is a burial ground containing the remains of at least eleven humans in eight different gravesites. The early humans were buried here sometime during the pre-Natufian period, or around 16,500 years ago.

Layout of the 'Uyun al-Hammam site, and an inset map indicating its location. (Click to enlarge)

ResearchBlogging.orgIn addition to the human remains, the archaeologists and paleontologists from the Universities of Cambridge and Toronto, led by Lisa A. Maher, uncovered several animal bones from among the grave sites. In grave one, a fox skull was found along with its right humerus, as well as the remains of a gazelle, a deer, and a tortoise. In grave seven, the researchers discovered most of a fox skeleton, a red deer antler, and a fragment of a goat's horn. It's fairly common to find pieces of animal horns or bones sculpted into tools around human settlements, but a complete fox skeleton? This is unusual.

By comparing the fox skull with other fossil canid skulls from the same geographical region, the researchers were able to determine that their's was a red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which was indeed known to be present in that area during the late Pleistocene. It turned out, somewhat surprisingly, that the fox skull and the fox skeleton belong to the very same fox.

But why was the skull and humerus from the fox found in grave one, while a fox skeleton sans-skull and -humerus was all the way over in grave seven?

It turns out that the human (probably a male, but this is uncertain) who had originally been buried in grave seven was moved - for some unknown reason - to grave one. The placement of the fox bones relative to the location of the human bones strongly suggests that the two were intentionally buried together. But while there were other fox bones found at other sites in 'Uyun al-Hammam, every other fox fossil shows some sign of consumption, such as knife marks in the bones or evidence of burning. This fox, however, is the only one found with an intact skeleton and no evidence of consumption or exploitation. Therefore, Maher doesn't think that the foxes bones were included in the gravesite as some sort of "accessory." Rather, because the fox skull was explicitly moved from grave seven to grave one at the same time that the human remains were moved from grave seven to grave one, Maher suggests that there was some sort of special relationship between that individual human and that particular fox. She writes, "It is possible that the link between fox and human was such that when the human died the fox was killed and buried alongside. Later, when the graves were re-opened, these links were remembered and bones moved so that the dead person would continue to have the fox with him or her in the afterlife."

It has become commonly accepted that dog domestication began around 15,000 years ago in the Middle East, around the same time that the burial ground at 'Uyun al-Hammam was created. Other archaeological sites from the region support the emerging relationship between humans and canids, such as the grave at Ein Mallaha in Northern Israel (see image, right), which includes an elderly woman buried with her hand placed on a puppy near her head. And another nearby excavation site in Israel called Hayonim Terrace features three humans found with the full skeletons of two dogs.

Given that early humans in the Middle East were building a sort of symbiotic relationship with small gray wolves (Canis lupus) which, through a protracted period of domestication, became the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), it is reasonable to infer that small foxes could also have been considered as potential candidates for domestication. In fact, a longitudinal study of domestication conducted in Siberia has indicated that foxes are quite easy to domesticate.

We will probably never know exactly what the relationship was between the early inhabitants of the Jordan River valley and the red fox, but taken together the evidence suggests that these small canids were more than just resources for food, work, or fur. Instead, there was some sort of strong emotional relationship that warranted special burial rituals.

Conserved and reconstructed fox skull from grave one.

The human relationship with canids extends "over a period of massive social, technological, economic and ideological change," spanning over fifteen thousand years of human history. Indeed, your relationship with the dog currently cuddled on your lap or at your feet as you read this blog post is likely quite similar to the relationship of that pre-Natufian man with his fox. What other human invention has lasted that long?

Maher LA, Stock JT, Finney S, Heywood JJ, Miracle PT, & Banning EB (2011). A unique human-fox burial from a pre-natufian cemetery in the levant (jordan). PloS ONE, 6 (1) PMID: 21298094

Other coverage of this story: NPR, TIME. Blogs: LiveScience, Brain Posts, Save the Carbon, Bones Don't Lie.