An online article soon to appear in the pages of the Journal of Archeological Science reports that about 8,000 years ago, some Siberian women had tapeworms, probably because of close contact with dogs whom the women cared for. Publicity for the new paper has revived attention to a controversial hypothesis about that closeness. As explained in a 2011 article in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology from the same team,
We suggest that some animals with unique histories were known as distinct persons with ‘souls’ and because of this at death required mortuary rites similar to those of their human counterparts.
A detailed and highly technical exploration of the physical evidence for this idea, based on human and canid (wolf and dog) burials in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, near present-day Irkutsk, appeared last year in the well-regarded open-access journal PLOS ONE.
So, is it true that people have been thinking that dogs have souls for that long? How confident can anybody living now really be about that, even knowledgeable experts, writing in well-known peer-reviewed journals with respectable impact factors?
The driving force within the Baikal archeology project for finding neolithic dogs’ social personhood appears to be Professor Robert J. Losey of the University of Alberta. His research home page at the university says,
Dr. Losey has shown that some hunting and gathering groups occasionally buried their dogs within human cemeteries, often in graves just as elaborate as those containing humans. Losey has argued that this relates to fact that some dogs clearly were intimately cared for by their human counterparts, but that this fact alone is an unsatisfactory explanation for why they were buried. While people’s emotional attachment to dogs was important, also critical was the fact that like many northern groups, these ancient groups considered some animals to have the potential to be spiritually on-par with humans. When animals such as dogs reached this status, they required mortuary treatments just like those given to most humans—in these ancient settings, this involved burial in formal burial places (cemeteries).
About a year and a half ago, the Uncertaintist discussed good reasons to think that a dog named Clea remembered her dead brother Alexei (link). Clea expressed remembrance by her ritually reverent treatment of a toy that had been her brother’s. The subject of interpreting burials came up in that article in connection with Neanderthals. The main difficulty in interpreting what Clea did with her brother’s toy and what the Neanderthals did with some of their dead is that dogs and Neanderthals belong to different species than we do. They cannot explain themselves to us, and the danger of projection, of falsely seeing aspects of ourselves in them, is too obvious.
The people at Lake Baikal, however, are the same species as us. As it turns out, that doesn’t help the interpretive problem much. The neolithic people did not write, and so they can no more explain to us what they intended to do than Clea could. If anything, being more like us – being us – might well make projection that much easier. At least we cannot be blamed for “unwarranted anthropomorphization.”
We can find more recent, but still long ago, people who buried some of their dogs, while also leaving other evidence about their attitudes towards dogs and their reasons for burying some. While we cannot retroject their attitudes back to Lake Baikal, we are reminded about how varied our species’ motives can be for performing the same overt behavior.
Anne-Sofie Gräslund has surveyed dog burials during litearte ancient and medieval times in western Europe, especially Scandinavia.
She found that many dog burials were “grave goods” for human burials, with dog and human sharing the same grave. For example, a dog might be killed and buried to serve a deceased human in his or her next life. This way of thinking does award the dog a “personal” afterlife of sorts, but the practice also emphasizes the lower status of the dog compared to the human, contrary to the substance of the “personhood” hypothesis. Other times, the dog’s presence in a human grave doesn’t seem to reflect any close relationship in life, but rather some symbolic, religious, magical or other impersonal reasons to have dogs included in a funeral rite. Dogs and wolves, who are both predators and scavengers, have a persistent mythological association with death among the Indo-European cultures. Who is to say whether the people at Lake Baikal might have had similar chthonic ideas?
Some of Gräslund’s dogs are buried alone, in their own graves. Sometimes this was a ritual to safeguard a building magically. A spectral watchdog was placed in the foundation of a structure. Those and other “sacrifice” burials might be easy to spot. What about other occasions when dogs are buried in their own graves?
Although Gräslund does not pursue all the possibilities, sole burial does not preclude being grave goods of a sort. If you and I recoil at the idea of killing a beloved dog just because her friend has died, then so might have our fellow humans at Lake Baikal. Dogs’ lives are short enough as it is; perhaps a beloved dog lived out her days, and then only in nature’s time, but soon enough, rejoined her former companion in an adjacent grave, so as not to disturb the earlier burial. People linked in life are often buried near to each other, in distinct graves when the time is ripe. As Uncertaintist readers know from another story, sometimes the spatial arrangement of distinct human burials reflects supernatural concerns (link). Why not dogs and people? That possibility bridges some of the distance between human persons and possible dog social personhood, but still doesn’t settle the question.
In modern times, Greyfriars Bobby, a famous Skye terrier, is believed to be buried inside an Edinburgh human cemetery, near (but not immediately adjacent to) the grave of his beloved human life companion. That arrangement is acceptable to modern human sensibility, that a dog who displays exemplary loyalty and devotion to a departed human friend deserves such a burial. And yet, how much personhood and ‘soul’ do those who cry at Bobby’s story impute to Bobby? My guess is that it varies considerably among individuals. Officially among the Christians who have a voice in running the cemetery, the answer is none at all.
While Bobby’s grave is inside the gate of the church-affiliated Greyfriars Kirkyard, the actual patch of ground in question is reportedly unconsecrated. And yet how would this look to a hypothetical archeologist eight thousand years from now? A dog is buried alone in his own grave, with a headstone (since the 1980’s), just like the people and within the visible boundary of the people’s cemetery.
Consecrated ground? Unconsecrated ground? Our species makes distinctions which leave no trace, and which the uninitiated would have no reason to suspect, much less to account for.
Just as the people at Lake Baikal were the same species as us, the dogs were the same species as Bobby and Clea. Did no dog at Lake Baikal ever display grieving behavior like Bobby’s, or the subtler memorial behavior of Clea, behavior that left little doubt that this dog remembered his or her dead? Would that behavior necessarily be attributed to the personhood of the dog, rather than the presence of the departed, perhaps yet another thing that dogs perceive and that people do not? Might not such a dog be given a memorial just for that, for having been a medium for the human’s spiritual presence, without any regard for larger questions of the dog’s own social personhood?
Apart from the opportunity to ponder the survivors’ motives, burial has an informative side effect: by keeping a dog’s bones together, many inferences can be drawn from the burial about the quality of the dog’s life. In some cases, a dog was severely injured during life, and the injuries healed. That means that the particular dog was supported by his or her community during a time when the dog could not immediately help the community. It is reasonable to infer from that nursing care some sense of social perception of the individuality of the dog. The dog is not just a means to an end, a way for people to benefit from the natural endowments of dogs, interchangeable with other dogs, but rather the specific dog has social importance as an individual, too.
How far is affectionately recognizing individuality from recognizing personhood? It’s hard to say. Carl Jung displayed affection for his dogs, and presumably saw each one as an individual, but Jung could write of them, as quoted in the article about Clea, “The dog is conditioned by instinct and has no will-power of his own, except when a little noise from his master releases it.” Canine personhood, then, seems far removed from Jung’s thinking. The very point of such a remark is to emphasize how different the speaker reckons dogs and people to be.
In summary, the confident interpretation of ancient burials as mute testimony to canine social personhood seems impossible. Too many other human ideas about dogs’ spiritual and religious stature compete for possible expression. Nevertheless, some idea that dogs could be spiritually significant, and that some living purpose was served by remembering dogs in death, was expressed very far back in our two species’ relationship. It is possible, if not securely established, that recognition of the personal spiritual status of dogs is a long-established feature of human thought.