Saturday, February 19, 2011

Foxy find feels fine, if fairly fishy

It's rare that a story about dusty old bones comes across as heartwarming, but when I heard on NPR's All Things Considered that a red fox skeleton found in a 16-17,000 year old grave site in Jordan may have been a pet, it hit me square in the soft spot.  (http://www.npr.org/2011/02/19/133898499/mans-first-best-friend-might-have-been-a-fox)

Some 16,000 years ago, people may have been curling up next to the fire with red foxes.

Of course, I was primed for that hit.  In recent months, Kary and I have gained a red fox "friend" who often stops by around dinnertime to scrounge the day's leftover sunflower seeds from under the bird feeder.  This also places him/her right under our dining room window, and we let ourselves pretend that "Foxy" comes around in order to enjoy our company and not just to get the free chow.  Of course, we don't really let our little game fool us, and we know that we're just one particularly safe and bountiful stop along this animal's long nightly trap-line, which is marked most mornings by fresh paw-prints in the latest dustings of snow.

In like manner, the bit about the Jordanian fox bones representing a pet may also be nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of the archaeologists who found them and the journalists who are passing the tale around the media-verse. 

Apparently, dog skeletons also began to show up with human remains in burial sites several thousand years after this particular fox-human burial took place, so the hypothesis is reasonable in theory.  However, foxes are more difficult to turn into pets than wolves are because, although wolves are social pack animals, foxes are solitary and a lot more skittish around people.  Some experts do speculate that certain early dog breeds might have descended from foxes, but domestic dogs primarily came from wolf stock.

According an article in Archnews (http://www.archnews.co.uk/featured/5192-oldest-cemetery-in-the-middle-east-found.html?print), the pet idea is more strongly documented for dogs in Jordanian excavations that are several thousand years younger.  For example, one woman's skeleton was found with its hand on the bones of a puppy; in another grave, three people were buried with two dogs. 

In the case of this fox burial, though, a closer look at the details makes the pet claim seem like more of a stretch, though still plausible.  There were actually two main finds of interest at the same site.  In one spot, a fox's upper arm bone and ochre-painted skull were found in a human grave along with various bones from aurochs-cattle, deer, gazelle, and tortoises.  To me, that sounds more like a sign of ritual than clear evidence of an owner-pet relationship. 

This skull was part of a red fox skeleton found buried with human remains at an ancient burial site in northern Jordan.

In another nearby grave, according to the Archnews story, was "...the nearly complete skeleton of a red fox, missing its skull and right upper arm bone, suggesting that portions of a single fox had been moved from one grave to another in prehistoric times." A deer antler and wild goat horn core were also present along with artifacts and several other animal bones. Supposedly, a fox was killed and buried with its owner, and then “...the grave was reopened for some reason and the human’s body was moved.  But because the link between the fox and the human had been significant, the fox was moved as well.”

Much as I'd like to believe the pet idea, this just didn't convince me.  It seems perfectly reasonable to conclude from this evidence that the same fox's bones appear in two adjacent graves, but where's the solid evidence for it being a pet?  Why couldn't it have been a totem, for example, representing a spiritual connection to foxes in general rather than a personal bond with that individual critter?

This led me to the source article that spawned all of this, which was recently published online by PlosOne under the title :"A Unique Human-Fox Burial from a Pre-Natufian Cemetery in the Levant (Jordan)." (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0015815).

In it I found that the pet claim was indeed made explicitly by the authors, who are based at Cambridge and Toronto. But they presented it as a suggestion only, and also noted that when fox jaw bones are found in human graves of younger ages, they're typically considered to be ritual objects.  The most unusual things about this older fox find are (1) that it's older, in fact the oldest fox-human find yet, and (2) the whole animal went into the ground, rather than just a piece or two.

For those of you who knew about this story beforehand and enjoyed it mainly for the pet aspect (as in "Foxes Maybe Our First Best Friends"), my apologies for poking at it like this.  To try to make up for that, here is some far more reliable evidence that foxes can indeed sometimes live among us as pets:


 


It's certainly possible that, 16-17,000 years ago, a Jordanian hunter-gatherer had such a close bond with a fox that they both ended up in a grave together.  But as much as I'd like to believe that the relationship was as close as the ones in these photos seem to be, I want better evidence of it first. 

For all we know, when Thag finally met his maker, the rest of the family may have said "Sorry to see the Old Man go, but at least now we can finally get rid of that pesky old wild fox that he's been leaving his nicest leftovers out in the bushes for, rather than giving them to us!  And I think I know just the place to put it, too..."


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