A ritual sacrifice of 40 dogs rewrites the story of the hunter of cobras | Science


The great feast ended with a mountain of wine glasses lying at the bottom of a gigantic funeral mausoleum. Next to the remains of that funeral bacchanal, the corpses of 40 dogs of different races buried in a strange ritual sacrifice. It happened 2,000 years ago, in the first decades of the Augusta Mérida, a new city that would be the capital of the Roman province. And among the spoils of that macabre festival, the bones of an Egyptian mongoose, famous for its impressive ability to hunt cobras and other snakes. And it was there, buried like a pet, in this pantheon that surely belonged to a wealthy Lusitanian family.

"In the Mediterranean world, the dog acquires a very specific symbolism and always in relation to the dead and the beyond," explains Javier Hernán

The peculiar thing is that until now it was thought that this animal, well known in the area of ​​Doñana with the name of mongoose, had arrived in the Iberian peninsula more or less in the Muslim period. But the dating of the bones of this mongoose, both in the archaeological context and by radiocarbon, invalidates this possibility. That mongoose lived in Augusta Emerita 2,000 years ago and probably was part of the animals of the house, since it entered the ritual burial with the dogs. That is to say, everything indicates that the Romans could have introduced the animal to use it in the control of rat or snake pests in the urban environment.

"The dog, in the Mediterranean world, acquires a very specific symbolism and always in relation to the dead and the hereafter," explains Javier Hernán, one of the archaeologists who has participated in this discovery. He adds: "It is an animal linked to the Greco-Roman and near-eastern goddesses associated with the afterlife." Obviously, Hernán cites the figure of the dog Cervero who guarded the world of the dead. That would explain a ritual sacrifice "nothing habitual" like the one found in this burial, with forty dogs and a domestic mongoose. "This practice would indicate the possibility that it was a beloved companion animal that would accompany its owners in their journey in the beyond," says the researcher Macarena Bustamante, from the University of Granada. Together with the Junta de Extremadura, they have also participated in this work researchers from the universities of Coimbra and Lisbon, with the archaeologist Cleia Detry at the head. "It was she who told us, reviewing the bones: 'We have an animal that goes out of the ordinary in Roman times," recalls Hernán.

The possibility of being a pet over the house is based on numerous classic quotations and historical references suggesting that the relationship between mongooses and humans, especially in Rome, was similar to that found centuries later in Egypt by European travelers. "In ancient Egypt it came to have a fairly domestic character, it is likely that it came with the Romans accompanying humans, not like a mouse sneaking on the boat," says Miguel Delibes de Castro, who has been investigating these animals for decades in the Biological Station of Doñana, of which he was director. The mongoose was still wild, but it was able to live tamed in homes, raised and cherished as a pet and to protect the house of the vermin. In addition, among the animals sacrificed in the grave were some of what we would call lap dogs, which reinforces its role as a pet. These dogs, in addition, had injuries healed in their bones, which would prove that they were pets that received care when injured.

This mortuary feast with slaughter of animals took place around the year 60 of our era, in a robust pantheon of four meters high found in 2005 in the works planned for a construction. In this farm (the Corralón de los Blanes), located in the center of Mérida, this great mausoleum was found under a few blocks. At the time of its construction, the family pantheon was just outside the walls of the city, in a funerary road with more graves, which soon after would become a waste disposal area, which buried everything.

It was thought that this animal, known by the name of mongoose, had arrived in the Iberian peninsula more or less in the Muslim period

Inside the monumental granite tomb, below the whole, four urns for three incinerated bodies, which surely belonged to the same family. On them, the remains of animals and the feast, which took place about forty years after the incineration of the people buried there. And at that moment the mausoleum was definitively sealed. "There is evidence that they have eaten and drunk, possibly in honor of a deity, and they left dozens of cups thrown in," says Hernán, of the Consortium of the Monumental City of Mérida.

"We can not know if they belong to a single family, although the most logical thing is that this is so, because these mausoleums are usually family pantheons," says the archaeologist, since the burnt bones could not make DNA analysis. On that funeral avenue there were individual or group incinerations, but also buildings that would correspond to powerful families that can afford it. "This we excavated must have been very relevant, because of its size and materials", points out Hernán, who regrets that the plaque in which the name of the deceased was not kept (its hole remains in the facade of the building, as shown) in the photo).

The finding of this mongoose It was published in the magazine Science of Nature along with other two examples found in Portugal. One in a medieval context of the castle of Palmela and another in a cave in Vila Franca de Xira, in the vicinity of Lisbon. The latter was dated at the same time as the meloncillo of Mérida and appeared in a cave, an isolated context "that allows us to define the appearance of this species in its wild habitat", as Bustamante points out in a note from his university. That is to say, at that moment there would be in the Peninsula wild and tame mongooses, in nature, which does not rule out their previous introduction, whether they were Carthaginians or, perhaps, naturally through the Strait of Gibraltar during the Pleistocene, as they have suggested other researchers.

Two millennia of invasion

A ritual sacrifice of 40 dogs rewrites the story of the cobras hunter

At present, the only place where mongooses are found outside of Africa and the eastern Mediterranean is the southwestern zone of the Peninsula, although it almost populated it from Galicia, Asturias and León to Andalusia. And although two millennia ago it was an invasive species, it is an animal completely incorporated into the ecosystem of the region, even protected by laws. "We have the typical conflict of this type of species, should we stop taking care of them because they were introduced by humans and were not here for thousands of years?" Asks Miguel Delibes de Castro, president of the Council of Participation of Doñana. "But we've got used to seeing them," he adds.

Precisely, Delibes de Castro has investigated how was the introduction of the only other afrotropical carnivore of the Peninsula: the genet or muskcat. Like the mongoose, the genet only lives in that part of Europe and it is likely that it was introduced in the Muslim era or perhaps earlier, with Phoenicians or Carthaginians. There are also old engravings of semidomesticated gynecists for pest control in houses in Egypt.

Meloncillos are generating a "particularly controversial situation" at present, according to Delibes, because "it has become very common and hunters claim that it can be hunted." "But it is protected", ditch Delibes, even if it is an invasive species ... for two thousand years, minimum.

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