Zooarchaeology entails the study of both microscopic chemical compounds and macroscopic societies and cultures. Its ability to see large through small is perfectly exemplified by the study of Anyang mortuary puppies. Located in the Central Plains of China (Figure 1), the city houses the remains of mortuary puppies from the Bronze Age, circa 1250 to 1050 BCE. Defying the norm of ancient Chinese dog burials, the sacrificed juvenile dogs provoke examinations of the social, cultural, and economic context of the settlement.
Anyang’s neighboring Bronze Age cultural regions rarely carry bone remains of dogs less than six months of age. Most lived for 12 to 18 months, fulfilling an ideal age and death pattern for meat production, as it yields maximized animal size. However, Anyang differs (Figure 2). Among the 84 dog remains discovered in the Xiaomintou tomb, 37% lived less than six months and 73% less than one year (Li & Campbell 2019:169). This suggests that these dogs were not killed for consumption; their uniformly premature death also negates the claim that they were buried sentimentally as pets. It raises two big questions: one of their origins, another of their early demise.
Li and Campbell (2019:169) suggest that Anyang’s Bronze Age society may have a specialized compartment that supplies juvenile dogs for ritual purposes. According to them, the local mortuary practice of pairing the deceased with puppies would require an adult dog population of over 500 year-round. Moreover, surviving oracle-bone inscriptions document the governmental procurement of hundreds of dogs in a short time for royal rituals. This implies a somewhat professional dog economy, where canine husbandry and distribution were mature enough to support the local population and official events of massive scale.
The authors endorse two theories regarding the dogs’ young age. They propose that juvenile may be chosen because a shorter life span equates less sentimental attachment from humans. Though it contains referential value, this theory borders on ethnocentrism, since viewing puppies as cute pets of emotional attachment is a modern Western interpretation, and the emotional appeal of juvenile dogs is contingent upon local Anyang ontologies. Another practical explanation stands: sacrificing juvenile puppies rather than dogs reared to maturity is more economic. This links the dogs to locally abundant miniature, unfinished, and fake grave goods, suggesting the Anyang society’s cession of material, economic capital to symbolic capital.
Although the Anyang burial sites supply only ecofacts, they solicit conversations of much grander scales relating to the society, culture, and economy. By virtue of their taxon and age, the bone remains invite investigations of the larger background that created and disposed of them. Beyond the anthrosphere, they shed light on temporally removed human-animal relationships. The Anyang mortuary puppies, among with other Bronze Age dog burials, illuminate a fluid, spectral construct of animality, ranging from the lowest and inanimate as food and the highest and potent as pseudo-human companions. Beyond the juvenile bone remains, beyond the Bronze Age, such range of human-animal interconnections continue to this day.
Li, Zhipeng, and Roderick Campbell.
2019 Puppies for the Ancestors: The many roles of Shang dogs. Archaeological
Research in Asia, vol. 17, pp. 161-72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ara.2018.12.001.
Savino di Lernia, Mary Anne Tafuri, Marina Gallinaro, Francesca Alhaique, Marie Balasse, Lucia Cavorsi, Paul D. Fullagar, Anna Maria Mercuri, Andrea Monaco, Alessandro Perego, and Andrea Zerboni.
2013 Inside the “African Cattle Complex”: Animal Burials in the Holocene Central
Sahara. Public Library of Science.
Thomas Cucchi, Lingling Dai, Marie Balasse, Chunqing Zhao, Jiangtao Gao, Yaowu Hu, Jing Yuan, and Jean-Denis Vigne.
2016 Social Complexification and Pig (Sus scrofa) Husbandry in Ancient China: A
Combined Geometric Morphometric and Isotopic Approach. Public Library of