Is there evidence of domesticated dogs at Gobekli Tepe?

Is there evidence of domesticated dogs at Gobekli Tepe?

This is an intriguing question. Gobekli Tepe (GT) is the earliest evidence we have of an organized, sophisticated, ancient society. But we know next to nothing of the people who built this fascinating temple-structure. They had no writing system, so everything we know must be deduced from the archaeological evidence. Whether or not GT’s builders possessed domesticated dogs can tell us something about who these people were.

The question can be broken down into more fundamental queries. The answer to each provides insight.

Had dogs been domesticated by the time GT was built?

This is the easiest question to answer. We know with near certainty that wild wolves had been domesticated by this time. Up until just recently, scientists were sure canine domestication had occurred by at least 17,000 years ago. A new study suggests that date can be pushed back another 10,000 years, based on the genome sequence of a 35,000-year-old Siberian wolf.

So it seems clear that for a very long time, wild wolves were being domesticated and slowly bred into what we today consider a modern dog. At least in certain parts of the world. But what about at Gobekli Tepe?

Did members of the society that built GT possess dogs?

This is a harder question to answer, since we don’t know much about who built GT. What we do know is there’s evidence of dog domestication by those living nearby. To the south in northern Israel, dogs have been found buried right next to their humans. Pretty clear evidence that dogs were not only living with humans, but also must have been important to them.

What is the evidence of dogs at Gobekli Tepe?

There is no physical evidence of dogs at GT. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Perhaps we just haven’t found them yet. There’s still a lot of digging to do. Scientists have uncovered less than 10% of the entire site.

There is tantalizing evidence of canines carved on some of the pillars at GT. But concrete conclusions are difficult to make, as there’s room for interpretation of the reliefs. What looks like a dog could also be a fox, or maybe even a lizard. See the image below. What do you think this is?

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If we never find evidence of dogs at GT, that will tell us something in itself. Negative scientific results are sometimes just as important as positive ones. In my pre-historical fiction novel, Azaria, the temple site inspired by GT is used for excarnation, a process where corpses were left exposed so that scavenging birds could rip away the flesh, thereby allowing the soul to be freed. If excarnation really was happening at ancient structures like Gobekli Tepe, perhaps dogs were kept away, so as not to interfere in the sacred process. You wouldn’t want your dog running away with mom’s arm would you? Nor would you want them scaring the vultures away.

4 thoughts on “Is there evidence of domesticated dogs at Gobekli Tepe?

  1. Actually, there is. While the photo abover most certainly depicts a fox (as indicated by the very characteristic tail), there are also a number of depictions we do interpret as dogs (again judging by peculiar – in this case upright bent – tails) at GT’s T-pillars.

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    • Thanks Jens! I find the ambiguity in some of the reliefs fascinating. For example, why does the fox have such a boxy snout, more like a canine? As the carvers were clearly very talented, they could have made the fox look more like a fox if they wanted. You archaeologists certainly have your work cut out for you!!

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      • Well, you won’t believe the discussions we have with our (archaeo-)zoologists on ID-ing some of these animal depictions. Or probably you would. 😉

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