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Dingoes were once regarded as "almost human" in Australia

The idea that “a dog is a man’s best friend” takes on a deeper meaning when it comes to Australia’s wild dingoes. Historically maligned and feared in Australia, dingoes might have once held a place of reverence, according to a new study from Australian National University.

The research sheds light on a previously understudied aspect of pre-colonial Australian history. It suggests that these wild canines were not just tolerated but perhaps even domesticated by the First Nations people before European settlers arrived on the continent.

The study was based on an in-depth analysis of remains discovered at the Curracurrang archaeological site, situated to the south of Sydney. 

Focus of the study

“Dingo burial is a tradition that began from the time of, or within about 1,000 years of, the dingo’s arrival in Australia, and appears to have been a widespread cultural practice,” wrote the study authors. 

“Both written and Indigenous oral historical records indicate that the practice was widely distributed throughout Australia at the time of European invasion.”

Dingo burials

Radiocarbon dating techniques applied to the excavated dingo bones indicate that these animals were buried alongside humans nearly 2,000 years ago.

Dr. Loukas Koungoulos, the lead researcher, emphasized the significance of this ritualistic burial. 

“Not all camp dingoes were given burial rites, but in all areas in which the burials are recorded, the process and methods of disposal are identical or almost identical to those associated with human rites in the same area,” said Dr. Koungoulos. “This reflects the close bond between people and dingoes and their almost-human status.” 

Possible co-burials

“Both male and females, and individuals of all ages are represented in archaeological dingo burials. Dingo burials frequently or even mostly occur in sites where people are also buried,” wrote the researchers.

“Spatial arrangements suggest some dingo burials from southeastern Australia could be co-burials with particular individual people, but possible cases remain to be verified with radiocarbon dating.”

Critical evidence 

Intriguingly, burials were not the sole evidence pointing towards the domestication of dingoes. The site also yielded dingo remains with notably worn teeth, suggestive of a diet rich in large bones. 

This characteristic wear pattern is likely a result of the animals consuming leftovers from human meals, hinting at a relationship far more intimate than mere coexistence. 

Furthermore, the dingo remains range from young pups to those aged six to eight years. According to the researchers, this shows that First Nations people didn’t just care for young dingoes before they returned to the wild, but that they built much more substantial relationships.

Long-lasting bonds

“These findings mark an important development in our understanding of the relationship between Australia’s First Peoples and dingoes,” said co-author Professor Susan O’Connor. 

“By the time Europeans settled in Australia, the bond between dingoes and Indigenous people was entrenched. This is well known by Indigenous people and has been documented by observers.” 

“Our work shows that they had long-lasting relationships prior to European colonization, not just the transient, temporary associations recorded during the colonial era.” 

The research is published in the journal PLOS One

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