Dogs and civilisations

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Following domestication, dogs worked first and foremost on the hunt, driving and taking game. Virtually all early hunting depictions portray dogs alongside men, including scenes depicting hounds hunting big cats on the outer walls of the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia.

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Hunting assistant or carrion eater

Given scraps and leftovers from the hunt, dogs also fulfilled the essential roles of carcass strippers and organic waste disposal systems for human settlements. Greek antiquity left many texts alluding to this. After the death of Achilles, Hector was abandoned to the vultures and the dogs. The Jewish Bible, too, mentions dogs that gorged themselves on the body of Jezebel. This has led to dogs sometimes being cast in a perjorative role. “Throwing someone to the dogs” is a phrase that harks back to the practice of leaving the corpses of dishonoured people for the dogs to devour.

Sled dog

Early on in history, humans started to use dogs to pull sleds across the snow in frozen regions, when other forms of transportation were impractical.

Coveted for its meat

Dogs were also an important source of nutrition in times of scarcity. Prehistoric humans ate their flesh for sustenance and also used their bones, pelt and teeth. Commonly consumed during Roman antiquity, dogs were also appreciated in Europe (until the beginning of the 20th century in France and up to the Second World War in Germany). It is mentioned in Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1913 anthology of poems Alcools. To this day, dogs continue to be eaten in parts of Asia, although animal welfare organisations have vigorously challenged the practice, given that dogs are now an integral part of our lives.

Used to hunt men

Dogs have also assisted soldiers in wars. Mesopotamian dogs, especially hounds, were highly sought after for tracking humans, such as escaped slaves, in the Far East around 1000 BC. In India, the door of the Buddhist temple of Sanchi-Tope is adorned with sculptures of the mastiffs used in wars. War dogs were specialised in ancient Rome.
Defence dogs protected the rear, attack dogs were sent to the front and liaison dogs ensured communication between army posts. Liaison dogs were perhaps the worst off: they were forced to swallow messages and were sacrificed upon arrival so the evidence could be retrieved.

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Venerated in Egyptian age

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While dogs appear to have had an unenviable lot in ancient times, there is also evidence that they were sometimes held in high esteem.

During Egypt’s New Dynasty, dogs were so highly regarded that to mistreat or kill one was punishable by law.

Ancient Greek artists depicted dogs as animals that had a privileged relationship with humans. Ashurbanipal’s Mesopotamian sculptors express this in Jeune satyre au repos (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

But the first sign that dogs were truly a part of family life is an earthenware sculpture from Gaul, depicting a couple embracing in bed with a dog sleeping soundly at their feet, a very modern idea of “love” for dogs from around 50 AD.

Dogs were now starting to be regarded as companion animals.

Some people have even felt the need to build a tomb in memory of their loyal companion after its demise. In ancient Egypt dogs were mummified to accompany their dead owner or as a sacrifice to the gods. The relationship was even more intimate in other parts of the world, including Amazonia, Oceania and even 19th-century France, where women would sometimes even suckle puppies.

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Dogs and civilisations
    Dogs and civilisations

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