Media Releases

University of Toronto anthropologists discover earliest cemetery in Middle East

February 2, 2011

TORONTO, ON – Anthro­pol­o­gists at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge have dis­cov­ered the old­est ceme­tery in the Mid­dle East at a site in north­ern Jor­dan.  The ceme­tery includes graves con­tain­ing human remains buried along­side those of a red fox, sug­gest­ing that the ani­mal was pos­si­bly kept as a pet by humans long before dogs ever were.

The 16,500-year-old site at ‘Uyun al-Ham­mam was dis­cov­ered in 2000 by an expe­di­tion led by Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to pro­fes­sor Edward (Ted) Ban­ning and Lisa Maher, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of anthro­pol­o­gy at U of T and research asso­ciate at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge.  “Recent archae­o­log­i­cal exca­va­tions have uncov­ered the remains of at least 11 indi­vid­u­als – more than known from all oth­er sites of this kind com­bined,” says Ban­ning, of U of T’s Depart­ment of Anthro­pol­o­gy.

Pre­vi­ous research had iden­ti­fied the ear­li­est ceme­ter­ies in the region in a some­what lat­er peri­od (the Natu­fi­an, ca. 15,000–12,000 years ago).  These were notable for instances of buri­als of humans with dogs. One such case involved a woman buried with her hand on a pup­py, while anoth­er includ­ed three humans buried with two dogs along with tor­toise shells.  How­ev­er, this new research shows that some of these prac­tices occurred ear­li­er.

Most of the indi­vid­u­als buried at the Jor­dan site were found with what are known as “grave goods,” such as stone tools, a bone spoon, ani­mal parts, and red ochre (an iron min­er­al).  One grave con­tained the skull and right upper arm bone of a red fox, with red ochre adhered to the skull, along with bones of deer, gazelle and wild cat­tle. Anoth­er near­by grave con­tained the near­ly com­plete skele­ton of a red fox, miss­ing its skull and right upper arm bone, sug­gest­ing that por­tions of a sin­gle fox had been moved from one grave to anoth­er in pre­his­toric times.

“What we appear to have found is a case where a fox was killed and buried with its own­er,” says Maher, who directs exca­va­tions at the site.  “Lat­er, the grave was reopened for some rea­son and the human’s body was moved.  But because the link between the fox and the human had been sig­nif­i­cant, the fox was moved as well.”

The researchers say that it could sug­gest that fox­es were at one time treat­ed in much the same way as dogs, in that there could have been ear­ly attempts to tame fox­es, but no suc­cess­ful domes­ti­ca­tion.  Stud­ies have shown that fox­es can be brought under human con­trol but is not eas­i­ly done giv­en their skit­tish and timid nature, which may explain why dogs ulti­mate­ly achieved “man’s best friend” sta­tus instead.

“How­ev­er, it is also note­wor­thy that the graves con­tain oth­er ani­mal remains, so we can only take the fox-dog anal­o­gy so far,” says Ban­ning.  “We should remem­ber that some more recent hunter-gath­er­ers con­sid­er them­selves to have social rela­tion­ships with a wide range of wild ani­mals, includ­ing ones they hunt, and that this some­times led to pre­scribed ways to treat the remains of ani­mals, as well as to rep­re­sent rela­tion­ships between par­tic­u­lar humans and par­tic­u­lar ani­mals.”  Ban­ning says that the “pet” hypoth­e­sis is only one among sev­er­al, which hap­pens to fit with mod­ern pre­con­cep­tions about human-dog rela­tion­ships.

Either way, because the same grave that held the fox remains also con­tained oth­er bones, Ban­ning says that the find holds impor­tant clues about bur­ial meth­ods of civ­i­liza­tions past.

“These were unusu­al­ly dense and diverse con­cen­tra­tions of bones, and indi­cate very ear­ly mor­tu­ary prac­tices that involved inter­ring select­ed ani­mal remains with humans,” says Ban­ning.    “The site has impli­ca­tions both for our under­stand­ing of the devel­op­ment of ideas about death and mor­tu­ary prac­tice, and for our under­stand­ing of the begin­nings of domes­ti­ca­tion of dog-like ani­mals.”

Details of the find were pub­lished recent­ly in a paper titled “A Unique Human-Fox Bur­ial from a Pre-Natu­fi­an Ceme­tery in the Lev­ant (Jor­dan)” in the online jour­nal PLoS ONE .  Field­work and research by Ban­ning, Maher and col­leagues was part­ly fund­ed by the Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil of Cana­da and a Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Research Explo­ration Grant.

See the paper at for full infor­ma­tion and sup­port­ing images.

- 30 -

For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Edward (Ted) Ban­ning
Depart­ment of Anthro­pol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Lisa Maher
Lev­er­hulme Cen­tre for Human Evo­lu­tion­ary Stud­ies
Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge
+44 784 291 8988

Sean Bet­tam
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to