These three graves from the Middle Epipalaeolithic cemetery of 'Uyun al-Hammam in Jordan are from the earliest known cemetery in the Middle East, if not the world.
A 16,500-year-old cemetery with human remains — buried alongside those of a red fox — suggests humans may have had a soft spot for the animals well before dogs became man's best friend.
The site at 'Uyun al-Hammam in northern Jordan is the earliest known formal burial ground in the Middle East, pre-dating other cemeteries in the region by a few millennia, scientists from Canada and the UK report in a new study published in PLoS ONE.
"This may be the earliest known cemetery period," Edward Banning, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto who is leading the excavations, told me today. "It probably depends on what you mean by cemetery."
The site is certainly the earliest known in the Middle East where people were repeatedly buried with grave goods such as mortars and pestles, a bone spoon, animal parts and red ochre, an iron mineral commonly sprinkled on bodies in prehistoric times, Banning noted.
Beyond the site's age, the researchers were intrigued by the presence of a red fox that was used in two burials. "This whole thing was buried with one person and then later on part of that fox is removed from that burial and put in another burial," Banning said.
The graves also have bones of other animals, but only the fox bones were treated in the same way as the humans. Both, for example, were sprinkled with red ochre. And in the original burial, the fox was completely interred, not just parts as is often the case with food offerings.
Banning cautioned that the significance of the fox can't be known for sure, but given strong similarities to the way dogs were treated in Natufian burials a few thousand years later, a pet-like analogy rises to the surface.
"It is tempting to think they thought of the fox as more or less equivalent to the dog in some way, because we tend to think of dogs at least eventually becoming man's best friend and pets," Banning said.
The connection isn't too great of a stretch, he added. Both dogs and foxes are canines, for one, and researchers know that foxes, while skittish and timid, can be tamed. What's more, early domesticated dogs in the Middle East were about the same size as the red fox.
"It would not be terribly surprising that they tamed foxes at least occasionally, it's just there is no way for us to prove it was tamed," he said.
The cemetery finding also indicates that elaborate mortuary rituals took place much earlier than previously believed and in cultures that were clearly nomadic hunter-gatherers. "It suggests that farming wasn't necessary to have that kind of level of social complexity," Banning said.
Though the people at 'Uyun al-Hammam were nomadic, the cemetery indicates ties to particular places in the landscape. The living space around the cemetery was a well-used campsite.
"Maybe because they associated it with their ancestors, it became their burial place. As they moved around this landscape, they kept coming back there to bury their dead. That's kind of interesting too, because it suggests a territoriality that is difficult to document earlier than this," he said.
More stories on early Middle East culture:
- Beer may have lubricated the rise of civilization
- Scientists pinpoint origins of little dogs
- Ancient Nubians drank beer laced with antibiotics
- Headless skeletons found in ancient grave
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).