Foxes were man’s best friend before dogs arrived, archaeologists claim

Remains at a burial site in Patagonia suggests that Dusicyon avus was a valuable companion to hunter-gatherers

Nilima Marshall
Wednesday 10 April 2024 10:40 BST
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Archaeologists have revealed an animal that was man’s best friend before the humble dog.

An extinct fox in Argentina may have once been in that role, sharing a “strong bond” with humans, research suggests.

Analysis of 1,500-year-old skeletal remains at a burial site in Patagonia suggests that Dusicyon avus – also known as Falkland Islands wolf – was “a valuable companion to the hunter-gatherer groups”.

Dusicyon avus went extinct around 500 years ago (Artur Balytskyi/Alamy/PA)
Dusicyon avus went extinct around 500 years ago (Artur Balytskyi/Alamy/PA)

The fox bones belong to a single animal while the human remains come from 21 different individuals, in what scientists described as “a very rare and unusual find”.

The team said the findings, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, represents “a unique case” of partnership between a human and a wild South American fox.

Lack of cut marks on the bones suggest D. avus was not hunted by humans for food, the scientists said.

Study author Dr Ophelie Lebrasseur, of the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology, said: “There are several factors that led to identifying our fox as a companion or a pet rather than as part of the humans’ diet.

“None of the animal bones present any traces of cut marks, which suggests the individual was not eaten.

“The specimen was buried on a human burial site along with 21 other human beings.

“This is a very rare and unusual find, and suggests it probably held personal significance.

“Finally, its diet resembled that of the humans buried on the site rather than the diet of wild canids, including your typical Dusicyon avus.

“Such a similarity in diets suggests it was either fed by the hunter-gatherers or it fed on the kitchen refuse.”

Rambo, a German Shepherd
Rambo, a German Shepherd (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Researchers say D. avus would have had a body mass of around 10 to 15kg, which is about the size of a German shepherd.

It would have lived in various open areas – with grasses and low shrubs – in large parts of South America, including Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.

The archaeological record suggests D. avus went extinct about 500 years ago, the team said, but reasons for their disappearance are unclear.

One theory is that the arrival of domestic dogs in Patagonia somewhere between 700 and 900 years ago may have contributed to their demise.

However, the researchers said that any possible mating between the two species would not have played a major role in D. avus’s extinction because of “a low probability of producing viable and fertile hybrid offspring”.

And whether these foxes would have made good pets also still remains unknown.

Dr Lebrasseur said: “Some individuals may have been less scared of humans, which may have facilitated the development of a closer bond, but we cannot currently confirm this.”

She added: “We do believe though that finding a Dusicyon avus specimen with such a close relationship with the hunter-gatherer community is very rare and really interesting, and represents quite a unique case of a human-wild South American fox partnership.”

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