Saudi Arabian Rock Art Depicts Prehistoric Dogs on Leashes


Recently discovered rock carvings in Saudi Arabia depict prehistoric dogs on leashes. Screen grab from YouTube/Aban Science and Technology by HowStuffWorks.

Your dog might not like being on a leash. He loves walks, of course, but could it be his glances are sometimes a touch reproachful as he gazes at you over the pile of leaves he's snuffling? That look might be saying, I am hurt by your distrust. Your ancestors let my ancestors roam free, and now here I am, a noble beast, chained.

If your dog lays that one on you, your best recourse is to show him the world's oldest known dog art. Ancient humans may have been primitive, but even 9,000 years ago, they seem to have been wise to the ways of the canine.

A recent study published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology in November 2017 describes recently discovered rock carvings in the Shuwaymis region of the northwestern Saudi Arabian desert, illustrating prehistoric hunting practices, using dogs as assistants. The depicted dogs look much like modern Canaan dogs, with erect ears, long, feathery tails and short snouts. Each one has a distinctive coat pattern, suggesting the artists knew the dogs personally. And just like modern dogs, two are shown tethered to the waist of a human hunter.

The engravings were discovered as part of a project led by a research team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in partnership with the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage. Over 1,400 rock art panels showing almost 7,000 animals (ranging from lions and leopards to gazelle and wild donkeys) have been found during the study's three-year run, but these dogs might be the most exciting find because they give us clues to when and why dogs were domesticated by humans.

It's very difficult to date rock engravings, but the research team estimated these to be around 9,000 years old, making them probably the oldest depictions of human-dog interactions ever found. Even if they're overshooting their estimate, the next oldest dog art would be on some Iranian pottery that's 8,000 years old at most. These newly found drawings certainly are the oldest depiction of leashes — before this find, the oldest art showing restrained dogs was from a 5,500-year-old Egyptian wall painting.

Although this rock art gives us a better sense of how humans interacted with dogs during this time, it's possible that dogs were domesticated much earlier — possibly between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago — and the domestication process maybe have happened more than once.

It's not known whether the leashes in the Shuwaymis rock art panels are literal or symbolic, but it certainly suggests these Holocene hunters had a lot of control over their dogs, that some dogs could have been more valuable than others (and therefore kept closer), and that the people likely bred and trained these animals.


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