Did the First Australians Keep Dingoes as Pets?

This article is part of our Pets special section on scientists’ growing interest in our animal companions.

Dingoes are muscular, graceful canids with pricked ears, bushy tails and teeth so pointy they look as if they have been put through a pencil sharpener. Rather than bark or howl, they give a long melancholy wail. They are wild in Australia but not really native, as they were brought to the continent at least 3,300 years ago, probably by Asian seafarers. At the time, Aboriginal peoples had already been living there for some 60,000 years.

Were dingoes domesticated or wild when they arrived in Australia? Were they descendants of pet dogs that turned feral on a new continent, or wolves on their way to becoming dogs that never got there? A clear consensus has long eluded the scientific community.

“The fundamental issue is what clues about the wild or domesticated nature of early dingoes could be found in the archaeological record,” said Pat Shipman, a professor emeritus in anthropology at Penn State University.

That record is the foundation of a paper published in October in the journal PLOS One that suggested that dingoes were trusted companions of Australia’s people well before the first dedicated European settlement in 1788.

Researchers examined the largely unstudied remains of no fewer than seven dingoes excavated from 1962 to 1966 at the Curracurrang Rock Shelter, just south of Sydney. Dating of the bones revealed that the animals were interred among, and at times alongside, humans as far back as 2,000 years ago. At another site noted in South Australia, the researchers noticed that dingoes were buried at the peripheries of human cemeteries, perhaps functioning as a barrier or protective ring, a scientist later suggested.

“In all tribal locations in which the burials are recorded, the process and methods of disposal are identical or almost identical to those associated with human rites in the same area,” said Loukas Koungoulos, an archaeologist at Australian National University and the lead author of the study, of the dingo burials. He and his colleagues found 19th- and 20th-century accounts of dingo “funerals” that featured variations on the Buddhist practice of “sky burial.”

In this tradition, the corpse was laid out on an elevated wooden platform, covered in leaves and branches and left for several months to decay, the same way that Aboriginal peoples disposed of their own dead. Then the bones were given a second burial in a hollow log, which was placed back in a tree or wrapped in thin bark and placed deep into crevices or clefts or on hard-to-reach ledges in rock formations.

Dr. Shipman, who was not involved in the research on the dingo remains, said that humanlike burial rites were indicative of an intimate if not symbiotic relationship between people and animals. “By revisiting every known site of dingo burials, and reviewing the original field notes, this team has greatly clarified the issues,” she said. “It is patently obvious that dingoes lived and bore pups in human encampments and were regarded as valued near-humans.”

Dr. Koungoulos defines domestication in dogs in terms of how they behave around humans. “If you have a canid that willingly lives with people, without restraints on its mobility, for the duration of its lifetime, and breeds in the company of people, it is domesticated — whether it looks different to wild relatives to a statistically significant degree or not.”

Scientists have long known that, until colonization disrupted the Aboriginal way of life, it was common practice to snatch dingo whelps from their mothers’ lairs and raise them in human settlements. Dr. Koungoulos argues that this custom made domestication much more likely, as the cubs would not learn the behaviors and social signals essential for life and reproduction within dingo social groups. Dr. Shipman added: “The finding of several largely complete skeletons of very young dingoes in Curracurrang attests to the antiquity of this tradition.”

There is also evidence that once in Australia, dingoes triggered a series of cultural and ecological developments that changed Aboriginal society. “Using dingoes to hunt is often a much more efficient and effective way of obtaining meat,” Dr. Koungoulos said. “Especially for women, who used them to great effect to procure small animals such as goannas and rats. But also men, who used them in organized drives for larger animals like kangaroo and wallaby.”

To Indigenous Australians, dingoes were campsite guardians believed to be capable of discerning malevolent spirits undetectable by humans. Accounts by early European colonists describe Aboriginal hunters in the outback huddling with their dingoes for warmth; to the Indigenous Australians, a two-dog night was a cold night, a three-dog night colder still.

Affectionate as dingoes often are to humans, they lack the undying faithfulness of most dogs. Modern-day Australians who keep them as pets require everything from leashes to high-walled fencing. Without restraints, dingoes inevitably return to the bush to find mates, seemingly never to return. “In the wild, they will rapidly lose all signs of domestication,” Dr. Koungoulos said.

At Curracurrang, the researchers found examples of well-healed injuries and signs of illnesses in the burials of elderly dingoes, which suggested that people had looked after their tame dingoes when the animals suffered from some debilitation. Dr. Koungoulos said that, according to new research, there is emerging evidence from the teeth and diet — measured by carbon and nitrogen isotopes in tooth enamel — that those dingoes probably ate many of the same foods that people did.

“Whether that means the dingoes were fed directly or scavenged the discarded bits of human meals is hard to say,” he said. Historical sources suggest that it would have been a mixture of both; dingoes were often deliberately given the entrails and bones or other less desirable parts of a kangaroo kill, for instance.

The oldest dingo from Curracurrang in terms of physical age had canine teeth that were worn on the side facing the throat; in 21st-century veterinary science, the condition is seen in dogs that spend a lot of time biting down on cylindrical objects. At the rock shelter, that would have been the large, long bones of animals such as wallabies or wombats, common fare for the people who lived there.

Dr. Koungoulos said that the wear on the molars was the result of routinely eating hard or abrasive foods. “The condition is never seen in wild dingoes,” he said. “They normally eat flesh processed by the canine and premolar teeth.” Only under great resource strain — drought, large numbers of competitors and other factors — do wild dingoes consume substantial amounts of bone.

Is a dingo a wolf that has undergone a human-related evolutionary change? While Dr. Koungoulos is undecided, he leans toward the theory that dingoes are descendants of dogs that have, over time, reverted to a wolflike state while living in the wild. He wonders if the first dingoes were similar to today’s Asian village dogs — largely independent of humans in everyday life but indirectly reliant on them for opportunities to scavenge food.

Genetic studies have shown that dingoes share a common, albeit now-extinct, ancestor with New Guinea singing dogs, whose melodious, yodel-like vocalizations sound like a cross between a wolf’s cry and a whale song. Although the rare New Guinea lineage has been called a “living fossil” by some conservationists, because it is thought to resemble the dogs that lived 10,000 years ago, Dr. Koungoulos cautioned: “The truth is, we don’t know what a hypothetical ‘dog’ ancestor of dingoes would have looked like or how it would have behaved.”

So far, no Stone Age dingo has been found buried with slippers in its mouth, or, for that matter, chewed-up homework.

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