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The Fox: Man’s New Best Friend and Other Recent Findings on Domestication

This guest contribution was submitted by Jamie Davis, who specializes in writing about masters degree. Questions and comments can be sent to Jamie.

Despite astronomic advances in genetics and animal behavior, the process of domestication, in which animals are innately desirous of human contact, is still a scientific mystery. How our ancestors selected specific animals that were suitable for domestication in the first place is also shrouded in secret. Two recent findings one in an archeological dig in Jordan and another in a half-century long experiment in Siberia may afford more clues. Both, incidentally, focus on foxes.

The Daily Mail recently reported on a story in which archeologists unearthed surprising findings in a prehistoric cemetery site in Uyun-al-Hammam, located in northern Jordan. The cemetery, which dates back to the Middle Epipaleolithic period, is over 16,000 years old. The site was opened in 2005 and has provided researchers with a wealth of information about human activity during this specific, pre-Natufian period of time. Recently, a Cambridge-based team, led by Dr. Lisa Maher of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, found the remains of a man and woman buried next to a the skull and humerus of a fox.

The researchers speculate the woman was buried after the man, and they found various grave goods buried in close proximity as well. While there could have been many reasons for the fox to be buried so close to the human, researchers found another grave site, containing what was more than likely remains of the same man from the first site, alongside what was most definitely remains of the same fox. For whatever reason, the first grave site was opened and the remains of the man were moved to the second site, and the fox was of enough importance that its remains were moved, too.

Dr. Maher and her team concluded in a report published in PLoS ONE that the placement of the human and fox remains suggests a close, perhaps companionate relationship between the two. If the human and fox-as-pet connection is true, the team’s finding is particularly remarkable because it predates the estimated time period of companionate dogs by thousands of years.

In another story, published recently in National Geographic Magazine, an experiment led by biologists and begun in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s, attempted to domesticate the Siberian silver fox. The experiment, still being carried out to this day, was wildly successful, bucking the conventional idea that domestication takes thousands of years. By intentionally selecting for the foxes’ approachableness to humans, the researchers began breeding foxes they originally picked out on fur farms. After only nine generations of breeding, the team successfully created foxes that craved human contact.

Throughout the experiment, the research team encountered problems like government censorship during the Stalin era and lack of funding following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most recently, American and Russian teams have collaborated on the fox project, opening many new fields of inquiry into the genetic components of domestication, how precisely, domestication occurred in prehistoric times, and what role our ancestors played in artificially selecting for specific behavioral traits.

Although researchers involved with the project are hesitant to draw close connections, these latest findings on animal domestication could provide insight into how humans may have “domesticated” themselves. Brian Hare of Duke University, had conducted research into how dogs, even at a very young age, are able to pick up social cues from humans. When Hare traveled to Siberia, he tested the fox kits with the same tests he had used on puppies in the same stage of development, and the kits responded just as well as their puppy counterparts. Hare explained how the Siberian researchers selected for friendliness but, in so doing, they achieved social intelligence as well. When asked about the connection with human social behavior, Hare noted: “Are we domesticated in the sense of dogs? No. But I am comfortable saying that the first thing that has to happen to get a human from an apelike ancestor is a substantial increase in tolerance toward one another. There had to be a change in our social system.”

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