Saudi Arabia’s Al Ula archaeologists unearth Gulf’s first domesticated dogs

The dig uncovered remains of human beings and canines dating back 6,000 years

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Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia's Al Ula province unearthed graves dating back 6,000 years and the earliest evidence of human and dog coexistence in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al Ula, 1,100 kilometres from Riyadh, is the location of the ancient city of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage Site and the main southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom in the first century that also built the Unesco site of Petra in Jordan.

A team of archaeologists have been working to find relics left at two ancient sites near by.

Researchers discovered a tomb containing canine remains buried in a cemetery thought to be one of the oldest burial sites in Saudi Arabia, dating back to about 4,300BC.

The find is the oldest evidence yet discovered that dogs coexisted with the ancient inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula region.

“Our discovery is creating a paradigm shift in the way we view periods like the Neolithic era in the Middle East,” said Melissa Kennedy, assistant director of the Aerial Archaeological Survey in Al Ula.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency said evidence suggested the burial site was used for about 600 years from 4,300BC.

The Royal Commission for Al Ula said that the team responsible for the latest discovery is comprised of Saudi, Australian and European researchers who focused their efforts on two aboveground burial sites dating back to the fourth and fifth millennium BC.

"Al Ula is at a point where we're going to begin to realise how important it was to the development of mankind across the Middle East," said Hugh Thomas, director of Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The two sites are about 130 kilometres apart and one is on the volcanic heights of Al Ula while the other is on Al Ula’s rough and arid plains.

During the excavations, the team uncovered 26 dog bones and 11 human bones from six adults, a teenager and four children at the first site on the volcanic uplands of Al Ula. Upon examining the bones, the team noticed signs of arthritis.

Laura Stroulin, the team's animal archaeologist, was able to prove the animal bones found were from a dog by analysing one bone in particular, from the front left leg.

The width of the bone was 21mm, similar to other measurements found of other ancient Middle Eastern canines.

The fact that the dog was buried with its owner indicated the great importance placed on the animal, the SPA said.

The team, which began fieldwork in late 2018, discovered the sites using satellite imagery and aerial photography from a helicopter.

As well as the burials, the archaeologists found rock art from the same period depicting dogs being used to hunt ibex, wild donkey and other animals.

Other notable artefacts, such as a leaf-shaped pendant at the volcanic highland site and a bead at the arid Badlands site were discovered during the dig.

Researchers are expecting more discoveries in the future as they continue the archaeological aerial survey project in Al Ula.

“There is much more to come as we reveal the depth and breadth of the area's archaeological heritage," said Rebecca Foote, director of archaeology and cultural heritage research for the Royal Commission for Al Ula.