Scientists are still trying to explain how the gray wolf could evolve into over 400 breeds of dogs, ranging from the pug to the pinscher. One aid in solving this riddle has been found in an unlikely place: a giant animal shrine from ancient Egypt.
At first, he panned for gold in the East Indies. Then he poked around in Stonehenge. And then, during his forays into the Orient, he discovered mankind's oldest legal codes.
Later, in 1897, French adventurer Jacques de Morgan found himself standing in a dark crypt in Egypt, knee-deep in bones that crackled and snapped with every step he took: He had discovered the world's largest dog cemetery.
De Morgan's pioneering discovery was soon forgotten in professional circles. But now, more than a century later, researchers from Cardiff University, in Wales, have turned their attention to the dog mausoleum once again and are conducting excavations at the site. Paul Nicholson, a lecturer in archaeology from the university who is leading the dig, says that thousands of mummified dogs were once placed into niches in the cavern.
Bizarre Animal Cults
Most of the canine corpses date back to the period after 748 B.C., when black pharaohs ruled along the Nile and animal cults took on bizarre forms. Indeed, some 130 cemeteries for bulls, snakes, baboons, fish and mice have already been discovered. And more than 180,000 cats have been found buried in a single mass grave near the village of Istabl Antar.
In Saqqara, a village just south of Cairo, there were two ritual sites for dogs. The one currently being investigated lies directly beneath the Temple of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the underworld. Priests would descend a staircase to the stone-lined cellar, where they would made sacrifices to Anubis with victims taken from a kennel in the temple district.
Private individuals would also come to Saqqara to have their deceased dogs embalmed. And when dog owners died, their beloved pets were often constrained to join them in the afterlife -- by being either strangled or bludgeoned to death. Countless ribs and leg and ankle bones lie in the passages around the cavern.
The Canine Conundrum
Researchers are now trying to determine the breeds, ages and genders of the animals sacrificed at this site. But their efforts aren't aimed at solving any Egyptian riddle per se, but to helping elucidate the mysterious family tree of the dog.
Famous Austrian zoologist and animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz was wrong when he posited that dogs descended from the golden jackal. Indeed, scientists now have genetic proof that dogs derive from wolves, fellow members of the canis genus.
Scholars believe that wolves first started to have peaceful interactions with Stone Age humans about 30,000 years ago. A canine jawbone recently discovered in Switzerland and estimated to be 14,000 years old already bears clear signs of domestication: smaller fangs and a shorter snout than the wolf's.
Egyptians as Dog Breeders
In the history of mammalian evolution, no other animal has been as flexible as Canis lupus, the gray wolf. Indeed, it is now credited with being the ancestor of the roughly 400 officially recognized breeds of dogs. Believe it or not, that whimpering asthmatic pug derived from the savage snarling wolf. But the question that researchers face is: How did all of these various breeds develop?
Reliefs, grave paintings and statues indicate that the ancient Egyptians played a major role in this development. The first known depictions of dogs come from rock carvings along the Nile River dating back almost 5,000 years ago. Not long thereafter, the pharaohs were already hunting with slender greyhounds. A leashed dog with black-and-white spots that vaguely resembles a dalmation is painted on a sarcophagus from the 6th dynasty, or roughly 4,000 years back.
Around 1500 B.C., small, bowlegged mutts and lapdogs were already scurrying around the palaces of the pharaohs. Brawny hunting dogs were bred for the battlefield, and mastiffs imported from Assyria were crossed with the domestic breed. A bronze figure from the grave of King Tut strongly resembles a dachshund.
So-called pariah dogs lived near Egyptian settlements eating garbage and periodically retreating into the desert, where they bred and multiplied at random.
Mountains of Bones
The underground cult temple at Saqqara is now revealing the kinds of dogs created in the process of uncontrolled mating as well as how many different breeds the Egyptians already had. The archaeologists are facing a daunting task: They have mountains of brownish bones to sort through, including the ones of jackals, foxes and hyenas found in initial analyses. And they will use CT scanning devices to examine the dogs that were found mummified.
Again and again, the scientists are finding evidence of just how bloody the ceremonies in the Temple of Anubis were: Many of the bones come from mere puppies that met a violent end.