Ancient Foxes Lived and Died With Humans

Ancient Foxes Lived and Died With Humans

When roving bands of hunter-gatherers domesticated the wolves scavenging their scraps at the end of the Pleistocene era, they set the stage for the tail-wagging, puppy-eyed canines we know and love today.

But dogs were not the only ancient canines to become companions. Archaeologists have found traces of foxes living among early communities throughout South America. This includes the nearly complete skeleton of an extinct fox discovered in northwestern Patagonia.

A team of researchers recently examined the fox’s bones, which were unearthed among the remains of dozens of hunter-gatherers. The team’s findings, published Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, posit that this fox lived alongside the humans it was buried with.

“It appears to have been intentionally buried within this human cemetery,” said Ophélie Lebrasseur, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Oxford and an author of the new study. “It’s a practice that had been suggested before, but to actually find it is a nice surprise.”

According to Dr. Lebrasseur, most archaeological traces of South American canids are usually isolated bones or teeth.

But the nearly complete skeleton of a foxlike animal was discovered when archaeologists excavated the Cañada Seca burial site in central Argentina in 1991.

The site, which was accidentally unearthed by local clay miners, also contained the bones of at least 24 human individuals and artifacts like necklace beads, lip ornaments and spear points. Analyses of the site’s human bones revealed that these people lived roughly 1,500 years ago and practiced a nomadic lifestyle.

The Cañada Seca canid skeleton was initially identified as a Lycalopex, a group of still-living foxlike canids. But closer examination of the creature’s teeth revealed that it was more likely to be the extinct Dusicyon avus, or D. avus, a medium-size fox that weighed as much as a small sheepdog and resembled a jackal. D. avus inhabited grasslands across a large swath of Patagonia from the late ice age until around 500 years ago. It was closely related to the Falkland Islands wolf, which was hunted to extinction in 1876.

Dr. Lebrasseur teamed up with Cinthia Abbona, a biologist at the Institute of Evolution, Historical Ecology and Environment in Argentina, and several other researchers to conclusively prove the identity of this skeleton. They ground down samples of the animal’s forearm and vertebrae, which they analyzed for snippets of ancient DNA.

Although the ancient DNA was degraded, the team was still able to recreate some of the fox’s genetic code. They compared it with complete genomes from domestic dogs and extant South American canids, like the closely related maned wolf. This strengthened the case that the animal buried at the Cañada Seca site was D. avus.

The genetic work also helped disprove the theory that these ancient foxes were doomed by hybridization. Some scientists speculate that when domestic dogs arrived in Patagonia around 900 years ago, they bred with foxes. This would have diluted the foxes’ gene pool and potentially created hybrid hounds capable of outcompeting purebred foxes.

But Dr. Lebrasseur and her colleagues found that the extinct foxes were most likely too genetically distinct from domesticated dogs to produce fertile offspring. Instead, the growing influence of humans on the local environment and a changing climate may have played larger roles in the species’ demise.

Another mystery was why the fox’s remains were interred at the Cañada Seca gravesite. The radiocarbon age of the fox’s bones matched the ages of the site’s human bones. The similar preservation of the two species’ bones also hinted that they were buried around the same time.

Additionally, the researchers examined isotopic signatures preserved in the fox’s teeth. While most wild canids eat almost exclusively meat, a portion of the fox’s diet was composed of maize-like plant material. This mirrors the amount of plant material that the humans buried at Cañada Seca were eating.

The new finding adds to a growing body of evidence that foxes and other native canids were important pieces of ancient South American communities. Ornaments fashioned from the teeth of foxlike culpeos adorn human remains at burial sites in Peru and Argentina. Archaeological deposits in Chile reveal that other canids were also part of the local diet.

“An animal that eats like humans and is buried like them must surely have had a close relationship with them,” said Aurora Grandal-d’Anglade, a zoo-archaeologist at the University of A Coruña in Spain, who was not involved in the study.

This relationship between fox and ancient humans may have been developed through systematic feeding. And it’s plausible that the foxes were used solely as companions, said Dr. Grandal-d’Anglade, who has studied fox remains found in Bronze Age deposits on the Iberian Peninsula.

While it appears this fox lived alongside the region’s early hunter-gatherers, Dr. Lebrasseur said she would be hesitant to snuggle up with it on the couch.

“I think the animal was likely tamed, but not something you would consider an actual pet,” she said.

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