Fox bones at ancient burial site suggest animal may have been kept as pet

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The remains of a fox unearthed at a human burial site in Argentina dating back 1,500 years has raised the possibility the animal may have been kept as a pet, research suggests.

Experts say the remains predate the arrival of domestic dogs in Patagonia, which occurred about 700–900 years ago, with a number of clues suggesting the fox was seen as valuable, and may even have been a companion to the hunter-gatherers it lived with.

“Either it was a symbolic animal to the community, or it was buried when it died with its owners, or with the people that it had a particular relationship with,” said Ophélie Lebrasseur of the University of Oxford, who, with Cinthia Abbona of the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research in Argentina, is co-first author of the paper.

Cinthia Abbona, co-first author of the paper, at work.

Writing in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the researchers reported how they re-analysed material recovered from a 1991 dig at the pre-Hispanic burial site of Cañada Seca, Argentina, which had been inhabited by hunter-gatherer communities.

As well as human remains, the dig revealed an almost complete set of bones belonging to a doglike animal.

While these were originally identified as a fox from a species of Lycalopex, the team say analyses and genetic investigations revealed the remains belonged to Dusicyon Avus. This is a species of fox that was about the size of a German shepherd and became extinct about 500 years ago. It was not previously known to have roamed in north-western Patagonia.

The original dig took place to prevent looting and disturbance after the site was accidentally discovered, making it difficult to know if the animal was buried at the same time as the humans.

Cranial and mandible remains of the animal.View image in fullscreen

However Lebrasseur said there was no sign that the fox was eaten, while the state of preservation of the bones suggested the animal’s body was deliberately buried, as opposed to being left out in the open.

Radiocarbon dating by the team suggested the fox lived about 1,500 years ago, making it a contemporary of the humans at the site. “It would suggest that [the fox has] been placed there as along with the other human remains,” Lebrasseur said.

The team also carried out stable isotope analyses of the bones, a technique that allowed them to investigate the fox’s diet.

While such animals would usually be carnivorous, the team found the fox had a diet similar to that of the humans interred at the site, and even consumed plants, possibly maize. Lebrasseur said: “Either the humans were feeding it directly or it was feeding off the refuse, but it would have been in close proximity to this site.”

Dusicyon avus skullView image in fullscreen

Lebrasseur said the findings chimed with an earlier report of a burial site in Buenos Aires province, where the remains of a fox of the same species was discovered adjacent to burials relating to a hunter-gather community, dating from the late second millennium BC. The author of that report suggested the fox may have been kept as a pet and considered part of the human social group.

Dr Alejandro Serna, an expert in Patagonian hunter-gatherers from the University of York, who was not involved in the research, said the new study provided fresh insights into the depth and diversity of human-animal interactions.

“Considering that there are cases supported by substantial evidence posing that precolonial dogs might have enjoyed special status among the hunter-gatherers that dwelled in the current Argentinian territory, it makes sense that similar species in earlier moments could have established this particular relationship with Patagonians,” he said.


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