“A man marries a dog-woman”; “The myth of the mysterious housewife”; “It is because of dogs that men have become mortal”… Would the study of certain mythical stories allow us to better understand how humans managed to transform wolves into dogs? Could it shed light on the questions that paleogeneticists and archaeozoologists struggle with about when and where Canis lupus familiaris was domesticated? In the quarterly issue The research currently on newsstands, Laurent AF Frantz, paleogeneticist at the Louis-Maximilian University of Munich (Germany) evokes a real “track game regarding this still debated question. And if the dog interests scientists so much, it is because unlike all other domestic animals, it is the first species to have approached humans thousands of years ago. However, the dates of this event vary greatly depending on the sources. Although paleogenetics has revealed that “the genetic code of a dog and that of an actual wolf differs by 0.15%”, the same method is much more complex to apply to ancient bones given the poor preservation of fossil DNA, or even the speed of evolution of genes -the molecular clock-, which is still poorly assessed. Trying to know where the geographical origin of the emergence of the dog is located as much as knowing the time when its domestication took place would therefore be illusory?
Reconstructing how certain myths related to dogs would have spread across the world
“This is not so sure“, answers Julien d’Huy, affiliated with the Laboratory of Social Anthropology of the College de France, in Paris, which proposes a new method of analysis to answer these questions. By using phylogenetic tools, it would indeed be possible, according to him, to reconstruct the way in which certain myths related to dogs would have spread throughout the world, and to go back, in doing so, to the probable place of origin where this event would have taken place. of the magazine Anthropozoologica.
Mycenaean art: fresco of dogs chasing a boar from the palace of Tiryns (1350 BC), in Athens (Greece). © Leemage/AFP
In 2021, in the book Cosmogonies (La Découverte editions), Julien d’Huy already explained how, using advanced technologies, it was possible to go back to the oldest origins of humanity through the study of myths. By combining statistical tools and phylogenetic methods – those usually applied to the study of species – the researcher had managed to identify the family resemblances that certain stories maintained between them, even thousands of kilometers or years apart. . On the other hand, by comparing the results obtained with those of genetic and archaeological data, Julien d’Huy noted that the dissemination of these stories covered migration routes… Hence the application of this system to a series of myths related to dogs, used in this new study.
“To do this, I used Yuri Berezkin’s database, professor of anthropology at the European University of Saint Petersburg (Russia) who lists thousands of myths, and I applied to those associated with dogs the same method as developed in Cosmogonies”, confides Julien d’Huy, joined by Sciences et Avenir. By dividing these stories into elementary units or mythological motifs – narrative elements that are found unchanged in different stories – these “bricks” coded in a binary way (0 or 1), then processed by algorithms, make it possible to find degrees proximity between myths, to the point of being able to construct phylogenetic trees with these mathematical tools. “This is how, from the identification of 23 mythological motifs linked to canids, I was able to obtain a phylogenetic tree whose rooting places the origin of the dog between Central Asia and Eastern Asia. East. This overlaps with the results of archeology and paleogenetics. Similarly, it was possible for me to define three large blocks of myths, the first mythological stories related to dogs: one, relating to the union of a dog and a woman (or a man and a a female dog), another linked to the dog and death, and a third, associating a dog with the star Sirius”.
Thus, by way of example and to take only the block linked to the theme of the dog and death, details of these stories between different cultural areas show that a connection between this animal and the other world (the other beyond) was undoubtedly brought to America very early on by one or more groups belonging to the first migrants from Asia. “Assuming a single origin for the dog, these accounts would have spread first from Central Asia and/or East Asia to eastern Asia, then to America, while the Bering Strait still allowed passage on foot to the new continent. A second broadcast would then have taken this mythology to the Arctic.”explains Julien d’Huy.
Giant geoglyph of a dog (51m long), on the site of Nazca, south of Lima (Peru). © Martin Bernetti / AFP
Archaeological traces supporting the theme of the dog and death are known from the Upper Paleolithic
For this specialist in comparative mythology, the same complex stories found on both sides of the Pacific testify to a common background of myths dating back to the first settlement of the American continent but also to the dissemination of certain symbolic practices. Thus, the existence of prehistoric burials associating a canine with a human burial, sometimes two, would reinforce the idea of the role of psychopomp animal of the dog guiding the dead in the afterlife. A custom among others practiced by the Tunguses of Manchuria or the Miaos of southeastern China. The geographical and temporal expansion of this practice would confirm the very great antiquity of this mythological motif. Archaeological traces supporting the theme of the dog and death are known from the Upper Palaeolithic, which is confirmed by mythological study. In some cases, dogs were buried alone, treated like humans, and placed in graves, along with tools, ornaments, and other items.
“Dogs, identified with certainty as such, were thus voluntarily buried in Germany, in a double burial in Bonn-Oberkassel, 14,223 years ago; others were found in a dwelling in eastern Siberia 12,800 years ago, as well as in the Levant at Ain Mallaha and Hayonim, in Israel, 11,000-12,000 years ago, or even in Kamchatka 10,500 years ago. year. This practice is also described in North America over 10,000 years ago, where three dog burials were discovered in Illinois at Koster and Stilwell II, the oldest undisputed dog burials on the continent.”recalls Julien d’Huy.
Dog burial dated to 8400 years old, discovered at the site of Ljungaviken, near Solvesborg, Sweden. ©Johan Nilsson/ TT News Agency / AFP
“Following humans, dogs would have colonized Eurasia and America from Asia, and later Africa and Australia”, summarizes Julien d’Huy. We find Canis lupus familiaris in the Nile delta around 6000-7000 years ago, or in Sudan around 5600 years ago. As for Australia, he would have arrived there around 3450 years ago. Domesticated, the dog has become man’s most faithful friend. Through the study of the myths associated with it, as much as the data of archeology or paleogenetics, it is possible to achieve more immaterial results. Those, for example, allowing us to better understand the way our Paleolithic ancestors perceived our oldest companions, whom we often discover to have been treated like real people during their lifetime.