Dogs, Death, and Ritual

In some areas of Eastern Russia, dogs in the past were treated much like the humans upon their death–they were buried in cemeteries, and even placed in graves with items such as spoons and jewelry. Such practices were particularly common among the hunter-gatherers of the Lake Baikal region of Siberia between about 8000 and 4000 years ago, a period marked by the abundance of cemeteries, extensive use of aquatic foods, and several periods of marked bicultural change.


The Pad’ Lenkovka dog burial, found within a Bronze Age cemetery near Irkutsk, Russia.

In other regions and periods, dogs were killed by people and then their bodies were included with human burials, or even eaten (or both), with their skeletal remains then placed in houses, near graves, or in other locations. Some of these practices can be called sacrifice, but the meanings and relationships involved in them were certainly diverse. These sacrificed dogs appear to me most common in the last 3000 years ago throughout much of Eastern Russia, often in communities where other domesticated animals such as horses, reindeer, and cattle were also present.

Dog in floor1

A burial of a dog skeleton below the floor of a house at the Proezzhaia Iron Age village in Eastern Transbaikal, Russia. This dog was butchered prior to being buried, likely for eating, and its skeleton placed in a pit, but out of anatomical order. Near its skull were two mussel shells and an iron implement. This practice also was observed in other houses at this site.

What can account for this suite of ways in which dogs were treated? How do such practices vary geographically, historically, and in relation to ecology? What do such practices say about our relationships with dogs and other species in the past? Are dogs simply ‘man’s best friends’, or something entirely more complex?

Figure 7_Fotor

A dog burial at the Ust’-Belaia habitation site near Irkutsk, Russia. This Middle Holocene dog was buried wearing a necklace of red deer teeth.

Our project investigates these post-mortem treatments of dogs through examination of their archaeological context–where and how they were buried, and how these practices relate to those used for the human dead or other animals. Like any archaeological study, the period in which the practices took place is critical, and we establish this through directly radiocarbon dating the dog remains. Further, we take into account the structure of the dogs’ diets, the experiences with trauma and disease, and even how the animals were used.

The video below, produced by the University of Alberta, presents some of our earlier work on dog burials in the Lake Baikal region.

One thought on “Dogs, Death, and Ritual

  1. Pingback: Sled Dogs Have Been Pulling Us for Millennia, Archaeology Shows – National Geographic

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