This discovery, made in a prehistoric cemetery in the Middle East, could shed light on the nature and timing of newly developing relationships between people and beasts before animals were first domesticated. The ancient graveyard known as 'Uyun al-Hammam, or "spring of the pigeon," was discovered in the small river valley of Wadi Ziqlab in northern Jordan in 2000 and named after a nearby freshwater spring. The Natufian culture was known to bury people with dogs. One grave held the skull and upper right arm bone of a red fox, with red ochre stuck on its skull, along with bones of deer, gazelle, tortoises and wild cattle. A neighboring grave with human remains also contained the nearly complete skeleton of a red fox, missing its skull and upper right arm bone, suggesting that a single fox had parts of it moved from one grave to another in prehistoric times.
"What we appear to have found is a case where a fox was killed and buried with its owner," said researcher Lisa Maher, a prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England. "Later, the grave was reopened for some reason and the human's body was moved, but because the link between the fox and the human had been significant, the fox was moved as well."
"The fox was treated in a special way from any other animals at the site," Maher told LiveScience. Although foxes are relatively easy to tame, domesticating them might have failed because of their skittish and timid nature. This might explain why dogs ultimately achieved "man's best friend" status instead. However, fox symbolism and fox remains are quite common in later Stone Age sites, both in domestic and burial contexts, "so even when other animals were domesticated, prehistoric people maintained an interest in the fox," Maher said.
The graves at the Jordan site do contain the remains of other kinds of animals, so "we can only take the fox-dog analogy so far," said researcher Edward Banning at the University of Toronto.
Also, foxes did not always receive special treatment - other fox bones at the site bore signs of butchery and cooking, suggesting they were eaten for meat.