Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Dogs and Wolves as Persons—7000 Years Ago

March 4, 2011

Seven years ago, an editor asked me to peer-review a book manuscript on ape language. My own books have benefitted so much from peer review that I could hardly refuse to take on this task.

Happily, the book was engaging, and also significant to an understanding of language evolution. I felt no hesitation in recommending publication. But I fought back on one point, telling the editor in no uncertain terms that the authors should stop referring to their apes as persons!

We humans are persons, but apes are apes, I insisted. In my own work I have argued strongly for an appreciation of ape cognition and emotion—but it struck me as a weird and false standard to bestow personhood on apes, as if calling them what we usually call ourselves somehow made them more special.

A lot may -- and I would argue, should—change in one’s thinking over seven years. I’m still not in the habit of calling apes (or elephants or cetaceans) persons. To term the “popular” large-brained big mammals as persons may help us to argue for their better treatment, but then what happens to the thousands and thousands of species who don’t make the cut?

Still, I grasp better now the goals of some scientists in evoking the animal-personhood concept. So I was delighted to be sent a soon-to-be-published article about personhood conferred on dogs and wolves in 7000-year-ago Russia. Slated for the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, the article, entitled Canids as persons: Early Neolithic dog and wolf burials, Cis-Baikal, Siberia is co-authored by 8 scientists: Robert J. Losey, Vladimir I. Bazaliiskii, Sandra Garvie-Lok, Mietje Germonpre, Jennifer A. Leonard, Andrew L. Allen, M. Anne Katzenberg, and Mikhail V. Sablin.

This paper explores the burial, amongst human burials in large cemeteries, of one dog and one tundra wolf. The authors beautifully situate their analysis within a broad anthropological framework. They write that their model

posits that Northern indigenous peoples (and others) both act in and know a world that is full of persons. These persons, namely sentient, willful beings with souls, include not just humans but also implements, plants, weather phenomena, landscapes, and particularly animals. The souls of these living beings cycle through the cosmos, returning to the plane of the living to inhabit a newly formed person. An essential part of this process is the proper treatment of the remains of the person, human or otherwise, following their death. Not all beings, however, are equally ‘ensouled.’

In ancient Siberia, then, persons were varied and ubiquitous! But not every person was accorded as elaborate burial treatment as were the dog and wolf.

The dog, found at a site called Shamanka, was a male of a type similar to a Chow-Chow, Husky, or Samoyed. Isotope analysis indicates his diet was roughly similar to that of humans. He had recovered from some type of trauma during his life, resulting either from sustaining blows (by a human or another animal) or from burdensome labor. He was interred at the bottom of a grave pit that was filled, at various levels, with remains of five humans and a variety of artifacts.

The tundra wolf, buried at a site called Lokomotiv, was also a male. His diet differed significantly from that of humans, consisting mostly of terrestrial ungulates like deer. Human remains and artifacts were also strewn through this grave, but with one startling difference: positioned between the wolf’s legs and rib cage were “the articulated cranium, mandible, and 1st and 2nd vertebrae of an adult male human.”

Why would the ancient hunter-gatherers of the Cis-Baikal region bury these animals in these ways? Losey et al. note that note that “concepts of friendship and companionship” are not fully adequate to explain the burial behaviors—or the ancient burial treatment of animals generally.

True, there’s no indication that the wolf lived with humans or that there was a strong emotional connection between the hunter-gatherer community and that individual wolf during the wolf’s life—as more likely was the case with the dog.

Still, the authors do speculate that the wolf may have been “meant as a protector of a specific human” at death, given that his remains were made to encircle the interred human head. They go on to say, “Social and emotional attachment to dogs probably did play a part in why some select few were buried, but emotion alone does not fully explain why they were given mortuary treatments similar to their human counterparts.”

Yet isn’t the potential protector status of the wolf best framed in an emotional context? While I take the point that the individual life histories of the dog and the wolf were distinct—as were their relationships with humans—I’d not be so quick to jettison the emotional angle. Many people today feel moved by their admiration for, or felt bond with, wild raptors, big cats or buffalo – or wolves.

This debatable point aside, Losey et al. have effectively opened up a new space for considering anthropological questions about animal personhood. Some ancient people apparently considered dogs and wolves to be thinking, feeling beings. As I struggle with my own views on animal personhood, this article teaches me that the severing of a tight link between “human” and “person” has a cross-cultural history with a significant time depth.


  1. March 4, 2011 7:40 AM EST
    Great post! For readers interested in further reflection, could see the essay by Tim Ingold, "A circumpolar night's dream" in _Perception of the Environment_ (2000, with a good preview on Google books). It's an extended essay on how we call ourselves "human beings" but non-human animals are "living things" and then comparing that with Ojibwa perspectives: "Persons, in the Ojibwa world, can take a great variety of forms, of which the human is just one" (91). Note in your post how difficult it is to wrap our minds around such concepts. Personhood is "conferred on dogs and wolves," because of course only humans can "confer" personhood. However, they would not see this as a conferring--those non-human animals would just *be* persons. Also, when the authors say they were not "equally 'ensouled'" with evidence from different burial practices, it does not necessarily mean the non-human animals who did not receive elaborate burial treatment were less ensouled--it could just be that they were different kinds of persons. Great post and great to see archaeology on this!
    - Jason Antrosio
  2. March 4, 2011 10:14 AM EST
    "Social and emotional attachment to dogs probably did play a part in why some select few were buried, but emotion alone does not fully explain why they were given mortuary treatments similar to their human counterparts.”

    I really don't see this as jettisoning the relevance of emotion- simply saying that it's insufficient to account for the mortuary practices that included canines. I'd have to agree with that statement- even without reading the article (obviously I haven't) emotion really isn't SUFFICIENT to account for ritual practice, though, of course, it can contribute to it - much as ritual practice can, and does generate emotional states. I don't read this as a rejection of emotion, but an assertion that there's more to it (what more, I can't say, since I haven't seen the paper!)

    On the question of personhood, I go back to Mauss who I still think has much of it right. Personhood is an attribute of social action - it's generated by our activities, and how we engage in them. That does NOT mean we're all inventions of our own actions- actions take place in contexts by which they are accorded recognition from others. So it's perfectly plausible for canines - or any other animal, or even imaginary forces like angels and ancestors and guardian spirits - to be persons if they are treated as such by others, and are participants in social worlds (even if only in the imaginations of those who they never meet). Personhood is in the doing, and is a public dimension of experience, and not merely some abstract set of attributes, or a sensory/cognitive mechanism that a given entity has or doesn't.
    - Brad Weiss
  3. March 4, 2011 10:22 AM EST
    What a great post and a great comment. I tend to agree, Barbara, that to bestow peoplehood or humanity on other species suggests that we value what (we think) is like us and not their distinctness. That said--and to turn to the ridiculous--I and others have often said that my dog and one of my cats "think they're people"--for example, when they grab a free spot on the couch as soon as someone gets up, or try to interpose themselves between us and the grandkids (their most recent rivals). But they clearly don't think they're people--people, after all, do irrational and potentially dangerous things--like take showers and ride around in cars--things my self-respecting cat and dog would NEVER consent to if not forced. Sorry about the silliness--I really enjoyed the posting.
    - Colleen
  4. March 4, 2011 10:27 AM EST
    Jason, thank you, and I endorse your pointing us towards Ingold. Brad, yes, personhood is in the doing- a good way to explain why I am uneasy with current political moves to draw the line at "giving" personhood to apes based on a certain suite of cognitive & emotional attributes. But if personhood is in the doing, isn't the doing woven through with emotion at every point? Isn't all meaning-making in some genuine sense emotional, so that we could reasonably ask what, for humans, exists outside an emotional framework? Colleen, fun comment- and you're right, you know. To continue along with a similar point, do those who lobby for ape personhood ever say, well, look, there's a significant murder rate among male chimpanzees at Gombe, hey, they're persons too!
    - Barbara J. King
  5. March 4, 2011 10:50 AM EST
    Sorry, Barbara, but no. I honestly don't think that the notion meaning-making occurs within an emotional framework means that understanding the emotions is adequate to understanding the practice. It's not sufficient to say, e.g., that parents love their children to account for why the Nuer have patrilineal clans and the matrilineal Bemba practice preferential cross-cousin marriage. But it is quite clear that these very different institutional structures shape the (emotional) experience of being a person in these societies in very distinctive ways. Meaning-making emerges out of interactions that incorporate emotions, but that's not the same thing as saying that these emotions account for the meanings. I'm sure you disagree, but I'm pretty comfortable with this view.
    - Brad Weiss
  6. March 4, 2011 12:03 PM EST
    Oh yes, I do think emotion shapes experience and experience shapes emotion... let me backpedal from (unintentionally) sounding linear about human behavior. My thought -- and of course I've never had a goal of reaching agreement, Brad-- is that I don't see how we can search for a "something more" explanation specifically of burial treatment of animals that is held apart from emotion, which I took your originally statement to be suggesting.... Anyway it's very cool that this paper is coming out soon and will no doubt stir up lots of good discussion.
    - Barbara J. King
  7. March 4, 2011 12:23 PM EST
    How interesting! I agree that the term 'person' is a tricky one to define, and it almost seems more political than scientific to apply (or deny!) it to non-humans. When I first started working at Save the Chimps, it was very jarring to hear the staff describe the chimpanzees as people, and although I eventually got used to it, I would still hesitate to use the term that way myself. As hard as it is to define 'person', there seems to be some attribute that doesn't apply very well to non-humans.
    - Joe Kessler
  8. March 4, 2011 6:51 PM EST
    Nice blog Barbara. I had not encountered this evidence, I guess because it is not published. Do the authors refer to the other, earlier, dog burials and young goat burials in the east Mediterranean reagion and Pakistan? I think this may well be an indication of quite different approaches to some groups of animals that contributed to their literal domestication--and hence to agricultural/pastoralist practices. Of course the soul stuff also goes to the literature about the different ways in which diffferent peoples have represented their relationships with the non-human world (including sometimes the non-animate) as represented by animism and totemism. I am trying to come to terms with Phillippe Descola's work on this. I am sure that such differences (which he calls ontological) are much more ancient that then conventional "hunter-gatherers eventually became agriculturalists" freshman oversimplification, and that these ritual attitudes exemplify that difference and probably account for the different evolutionary trajectories of different fgh groups.
    - Iain Davidson
  9. March 4, 2011 9:12 PM EST
    Joe, that's it exactly- the jarring sense of hearing 'persons' used around apes. Iain, the authors do a splendid review of animal burials in the Siberian region, but do not extend that review further than the circumpolar North. Your comment reminds me that I have to get back to Descola. The reading and writing plans I have for my soon-to-begin research leave are so extensive it would take at least 3 calendar years to actually complete them!
    - Barbara J. King
  10. March 4, 2011 9:35 PM EST
    I'm pretty sure Boas recognized that Kwaikutl described potlatch in terms of a reciprocity among fur-bearing "persons" which include humans who need to bear the fur of others. Potlatch object destruction was - in part, at least - a kind of sacrificial renewal meant to provide life to future generations of otters and beavers, etc. All of "humanity" is one big process of (re)generating vitality in all of its diverse forms. I've read the Descola stuff and, meh, I think anthropology has long recognized that cosmologies are shifting and personhood is a feature of social interaction that includes all manner of participants (it's rather central to Marx's insights into the commodity form, e.g.). I don't need multiple ontologies to reinvent that wheel.
    - Brad Weiss
  11. March 8, 2011 4:22 PM EST
    As a William and Mary alumna and the former Ph.D. advisor of Rob Losey, I am excited to read your blog, Barbara, et al. Both the Tlingit and Haida have strong traditions of attributing personhood to non-human animals (see de Laguna (1972) on the Yakutat and Boeschler on the Haida). Clans have animal ancestors and there are many stories of people experiencing travels to other worlds in which animals live as people. This is not so common today, but I remember working with elders who referred to animals in these ways as recently as 20 years ago.
    - Madonna L. Moss
  12. March 8, 2011 5:13 PM EST
    Great to see you here, Madonna- did you study anthropology, then, at W&M? Your comment is appreciated. I am not as familiar with this literature of course as you; I do remember being gripped by experiences recounted by Black Elk and in ethnographic writing by Edith Turner about people transporting to worlds where animals live as people.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.