In the last decade, archaeologists have discovered evidence that foxes may have been kept as pets thousands of years ago—or, at the very least, tolerated to hang around human settlements.
To learn more about the relationship between foxes and our ancestors, I spoke with an archaeologist and a zoologist about the latest scientific findings and what they mean for our understanding of animal domestication in human history.
The most recent study of archaeological burial sites where both foxes and humans were found has taken place in Spain. The site belonged to an agricultural society, one growing barley and legumes and taking care of livestock like sheep and cattle.
Researchers from several institutes and universities analyzed bones collected at the burial site. They studied the isotopes found in the collagen preserved in the bones, which can provide insights into the diets of individuals. In human bones, we can learn about the diet of an adult in the last five to 10 years of life. In young adult dogs, the diet data spans from six months to three years.
The first significant finding was how many fox bones the researchers found, explained by Aurora Grandal-d’Angladethe lead researcher and a senior lecturer at the University of A Coruña.
“The fox was already a striking finding, since in the Can Roqueta burials there were only domestic animals,” she said. “Later, when collaborating with researchers from other sites, they saw that there were more cases, and this was a key to consider that the foxes had a special value.”
The results show that the foxes had a diet similar to some of the humans and dogs. This suggests a higher level of interaction than previously assumed between these societies and foxes 4,000 years ago.
Moreover, the team found something surprising: One of the four foxes, the one with the most human-like diet (large amounts of vegetable protein), had healed broken bones. The way in which the bones were healed is compatible with the immobilization of the fractured bones, presumably by humans.
“The healed fracture in the fox’s paw was a finding that caught the attention of the team working at Can Roqueta from the moment of the excavation,” Grandal-d’Anglade said. “When I came to collaborate with the zooarchaeologists with the isotopic analyses, we predicted for the fox an isotopic signature somewhat different from that of a wild carnivore, but it turned out to be more special than expected.”
In addition to finding similarities between foxes’ diets and that of humans and their dogs, the researchers found that, in the case of the injured fox, its diet contained an important amount of vegetable protein. This diet is similar to that of young dogs at the site, rich in cereals. This could indicate that the fox was being fed by humans, at least for a time before the its death. However, the isotopic signature is not specific enough to verify this.
Although studying a much older burial, approximately 15,000 years old, a similar study in Germany and Switzerland also found differences between the diets of foxes surrounding human settlements and wild foxes. In that study, however, the fox diet was still quite distinct from that of humans, indicating a commensal relationship, where foxes would obtain food scraps from humans, one way or another.
Around the same time, approximately 13,000 years ago in the Levant, a careful burial was performed: the burial of a human with a fox. Both their bones were treated with red ochre (treatment not given to the other bones found at the burial site), indicating some sort of significance of the fox in contrast to the other animals. Moreover, the burial was later re-opened, and the bones were taken elsewhere, but the human and the fox were kept together through these different burials.
This study, published 10 years ago, analyzed the burial site’s composition. Notably, the date of this unique human-fox burial pre-dates the appearance of domesticated dogs in the region. Of course, figuring out the social meanings of a human society that existed thousands of years ago is a complex task. However, it is not hard to imagine that, at some point in time, foxes may have been seen as analogues to dogs and of some potential usefulness to keep around.
As remarked by Cat Blackan adjunct biology instructor at Radford University who has studied foxes living in and around human areas, foxes are very adaptable.
“As opportunistic omnivores, foxes have a highly flexible diet, and can capitalize on anthropogenic food resources such as scraps from unsecured garbage bins, compost piles, pet food, etc,” Black explained. “They can also take advantage of high densities of prey species, such as mice and rats. Unlike some species that require large areas of old-growth forest or pristine wetlands to thrive, red foxes will readily use a wide variety of habitat types and seem to particularly like edge habitats and areas where several different habitat types occur in close proximity.”
Whether foxes in the past were just living near human settlements or were purposefully kept (or allowed) around them, urban foxes are a phenomenon for which we can find analogues in more recent times.
Records of foxes around urban areas are present in both the 19th and 20th centuries. Records of urban foxes are found both in areas where they are native and where they have been introduced: Melbourne in the 1940s, suburban Stockholm in the 1960s, and Brussels in the early 1970s, for examples.
Usually, these urban foxes were not broadly welcomed. As Black explained, living next to foxes is not necessarily easy.
“For people, red foxes can become a nuisance when their activities interfere with human ideals,” she said. “Knocking over trash cans, raiding gardens, denning under porches and sheds, and defecating in yards is normal red fox behavior, but not everyone is willing to tolerate such unruly neighbors. People may also have concerns about fox impacts on human and pet health and safety. Fox attacks on people, dogs, and cats are rare, but foxes can carry rabies and other diseases that can be transmitted to people and the pets they care about.”
However, there are records of foxes being tamed and kept as pets. In Finland, a country with many records of foxes living in or around urban centers, there are also reports of some of the tamer urban foxes being captured and then kept as pets. For example, in 1921, a fox was caught in the Turku city barracks and was kept as a pet.
Time to revisit old digging sites
It is not hard to imagine how similar situations may have occurred throughout history when someone decided to keep a fox as a pet (or maybe wanted their fur after they grew up). But unfortunately, there’s still much we don’t know.
To answer the question of why our ancestors did not domesticate foxes the way they did dogs, we still have a long way to go. It is possible, however, that some of the critical remains have already been unburied, waiting to be analyzed with new techniques and an open mind, noted Grandal-d’Anglade.
“It is quite possible that the skeletal remains of foxes that may have been found in archaeological contexts have been directly classified as the remains of hunted animals without considering other hypotheses. The idea that the fox was simply a wild animal is prevalent among archaeologists, but in my opinion, it is a preconceived idea,” she said. “If only domestic animals are included in funerary structures, the presence of a fox may indicate a close relationship with the buried human…. But when approaching an archaeological context, it is necessary to pay attention to various kinds of evidence. We studied the diet of these foxes and found it to be like that of dogs, and equally similar to that of children. Hence our suggestion that these foxes were not entirely wild animals. Perhaps if we review more sites from this point of view, we could find similar cases. “
Maria Gatta is an ecologist and science writer with a passion for the relationships between plants, animals, and humans. She is also a biology consultant for video game companies. Follow her on Twitter: @M_Gatta