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Dogs and wolves were eaten in a ritual in the Russian steppes, nearly 4,000 years ago DeAgostini/Getty Image

Archaeologists working in an ancient settlement at the heart of the Russian steppes have unearthed the remains of 64 dogs and wolves. They appeared to have been sacrificed and consumed as part of male initiation rituals that took place at the site nearly 4,000 years ago.

From the Greeks to the Celts to the ancient pre-Indo-European communities that once inhabited the lands of modern Russia, ancient cultures wrote about young boys eating dogs as part of an initiation into manhood.

However, no physical evidence had ever been recovered to suggest that such rituals had happened. This led many archaeologists to suspect that they had only existed in the writings of these cultures.

In a new paper now published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, researchers describe canid bones discovered at the settlement of Krasnosamarskoe in the Russian steppes, which they say may provide the first evidence that these ceremonies really existed.

Eating dogs and wolves

The bones were excavated during the years 1999 to 2001 and researchers dated them back to 3,700 to 3,900 years ago. Some of the bones were human, but 2,770 bone fragments were found to belong to dogs. Furthermore, bone pieces from 18 wolves were recovered. In total, the archaeologists think that they have come up with the bones of 64 canids, dogs and wolves.

Markings on the bones suggest that the canids were killed and that they were roasted, filleted, and apparently eaten. The fact that that they had been cut and prepared in a standardised way suggests that a ritual had taken place.

Of course, the dogs may have been eaten because people in this settlement were starving - this has happened throughout history during periods of famine. But here, the human remains also recovered at the site suggest that these people had not been starving.

The dogs had all been mature healthy adults, with few signs of mistreatment, which also reveals that they had a particular importance for the community. Furthermore, most of the bones were from male dogs, which were generally the only gender involved in written accounts of dog-eating rituals.

All of this backs up the researchers' idea that a initiation ritual had taken place there during the Bronze Age, between 3,700 and 3,900 years ago.

This practice is intriguing as it appears to be unique in the region to this site, and it violates a cultural taboo against eating canids that had usually been associated with these communities.

However, the researchers have been able to come up with an interpretation for these rituals. They suggest that eating dogs and wolves was a metaphor of human transformation into male canids. As young men entered adulthood, they formed band of warriors and came to assimilate with the strong and vigorous creatures.