Dogs and Cats Weren't the Only 4-Legged Friends Ancient Humans Domesticated

But this cute relationship didn't last.

Pet foxes, which feature prominently in certain corners of the internet, are usually wild, only partially domesticated animals. But that wasn’t always the case: Archaeological evidence shows that humans and foxes once shared a closer relationship akin to what we now share with dogs. As a recent paper shows, Bronze Age humans on the northeast Iberian Peninsula — home to present-day Spain — domesticated foxes, even burying them alongside the deceased.

In a paper published January 14 in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, a team of researchers in Spain and Switzerland describe two dig sites, Can Roqueta in Barcelona and Minferri in Lleida, where the remains of foxes were found buried alongside humans and dogs between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.

These foxes, buried in unique silo-shaped grave structures with humans and dogs, were probably companions to those humans, they write. The chemical compositions of the humans and their animals revealed that the foxes had eaten diets very similar to those of their human comrades.

But they’re still not sure what role those foxes played in the humans’ lives.

This artistic representation shows a Bronze Age human walking with a domesticated dog and fox. The dog, archaeological evidence suggests, carried loads.
This artistic representation shows a Bronze Age human walking with a domesticated dog and fox. The dog, archaeological evidence suggests, carried loads.

“Isotopic data from some of the foxes indicate a similarity with the feeding patterns of the humans that they accompanied at death and with dogs, raising the possibility of a high level of interaction between these wild canids and societies of the past for reasons that still cannot be identified,” write the authors, led by Aurora Grandal-d’Anglade, Ph.D., a senior researcher at the University of A Coruña.

Her team analyzed samples from the remains of 64 humans, 32 dogs, 4 foxes, and an assortment of other farm animals including cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs found at the two different dig sites. Traces of stable carbon and nitrogen in the bones rounded out the picture of what both humans and animals ate.

As it turns out, the dogs and foxes ate similar diets to the humans, which notably included cereal grains. Only humans would have fed them cereal, the team writes, suggesting that these animals were indeed cared for by people. Some dogs seemed to have diets that were richer in grains than those of other dogs, suggesting that they may have been used as pack animals — fed well so they’d be strong enough to complete their tasks.

At two sites in Spain, archaeologists found burial silos that contained humans buried alongside foxes (a, b), as well as the remains of dogs (c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j) and cows (c, d).
At two sites in Spain, archaeologists found burial silos that contained humans buried alongside foxes (a, b), as well as the remains of dogs (c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j) and cows (c, d).

Interestingly, the diets of the foxes varied somewhat too. Some showed evidence of a grain-heavy diet more similar to the humans’ and dogs’ diets than that others. This suggested that, like the dogs, they did something that made them worth caring for. One Can Roqueta fox, in particular, seemed to be particularly well cared for by a person.

“The case of the Can Roqueta fox is very special, because it is an old animal, with a broken leg,” said Grandal-d’Anglade. “The fracture is still in its healing process, and shows signs of having been immobilized (cured) by humans. The feeding of this animal is very unusual, as it is more akin to a puppy dog’s. We interpret it as a domestic animal that lived for a long time with humans.”

Unfortunately, the study’s authors did not reveal any clues to the role of the foxes in human society. It’s clear now, however, that they didn’t have quite the same close relationship as humans and dogs. And suffice it to say, they probably weren’t anything like Loki the Red Fox, the Instagram influencer featured in the header video above.

Abstract: Findings of canid remains in graves at different sites in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula are evidence of a widespread funerary practice that proliferated between the end of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC, in particular, in the Early-Middle Bronze Age contexts. The discovery of four foxes and a large number of dogs at the sites of Can Roqueta (Barcelona) and Minferri (Lleida) respectively, stand out among the many examples of these types of grave goods. In this work, we have made an approximation of the relationship between humans and canids through the study of their diet by analysis of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in bone collagen. These analyses were complemented by archaeozoological, anthropological and archaeobotanical studies. The comparison of human and animal diets comprised a total of 37 canids, 19 domestic ungulates and 64 humans. The results indicate that the diet of the dogs was similar to that of humans, although δ15N values of dogs in Can Roqueta and Minferri are, on the average, 1.4‰ and 1.1‰, respectively, lower than those of humans. The offset between canids and the herbivorous ungulates of each site is not up to the established minimum for a trophic level, which implies an input of C3 plants and human intervention in the feeding of dogs and some of the foxes. Some particular cases in Can Roqueta suggest a specific food preparation, richer in cereals, for larger dogs (probably devoted to carrying loads), and possibly for at least one of the foxes.