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Museum exhibit studies how dogs evolved to be man’s best friend

Museum exhibit studies how dogs evolved to be man’s best friend

At an archaeological site in southern Illinois, human bones rest alongside their canine companions.

That may not sound odd today, when dogs are commonly treated as members of the family. But these dogs were lovingly buried 10,000 years ago – the oldest evidence of canine burial in North America.

Until May 10, you can see one of these ancient dogs at the James B. and Rosalyn L. Pick Museum of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University. The museum’s exhibit, “For the Love of Humans: A History of Dogs,” explores how humans and dogs evolved together.

“This exhibit does a really nice job of reminding us that dogs exist because we created them,” said Keri Burchfield, a professor of sociology at NIU. “They evolved to be what we need them to be, and they fulfill so many needs for us that we take for granted.”

The exhibit explores how humans have used dogs as workers throughout history. There is a full dog sled, and visitors can learn how the cultural meaning of dog sleds has changed over time.

There also is a section dedicated to police K-9 officers, specifically to the NIU police department’s own K-9, Izzy.

Dogs’ role in human religion is examined, including a case devoted to Kukur Tihar, a holiday celebrated in Nepal the day before Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. On this day, dogs are given treats, wreathed in marigolds and adorned with vermilion on their heads to symbolize their sacredness.

“I want visitors to take away how long this bond has been going on,” said Rachelle Wilson-Loring, acting director of the Pick Museum. “This has not been a one-sided evolution. Canines made the choice to live with us just as much as we made the choice to include them in our culture.”

In dog-crazy DeKalb, part of the exhibit is dedicated to the influence dogs have had on NIU in the form of the husky mascot – though university devotees spell it Huskie.

“The NIU history section has artifacts and mascot uniforms showing how the Huskie mascot was depicted over the years and how the meaning of ‘being a Huskie’ has changed over time,” Wilson-Loring said.

But the museum director’s favorite part of the exhibit is the ancient dog.

“I find it fascinating to think about where she’s been and the cultures she’s entwined with,” Wilson-Loring said. “She speaks the most to me.”

Some of the dog skeletons at the Illinois site clearly came from working dogs. Some appear to have been simply discarded, and some show evidence of butchering for food. But others were buried in very deliberate, ceremonial ways, and it’s that cultural shift Wilson-Loring finds interesting.

“Up to a certain point, dogs were viewed as food,” she said. “Then there’s a point in the archaeological record and after that point, they became beasts of burden. The dog we have shows signs she was a traversing dog; she carried materials on a back harness.”

In all of its exhibits, Wilson-Loring said, the Pick Museum strives to promote and stimulate dialogue about social justice.

The dog exhibit came about primarily because many of those involved are dog lovers and because of a recent explosion in scientific research into ancient canines and their co-evolution with humans. But visitors who come for an education in culture leave with tools to take action in the wider world.

The last section of the exhibit is an advocacy area where visitors can learn about three area organizations that rescue unwanted dogs – Stardust Animal Sanctuary in Richmond, Tails Humane Society in DeKalb and Ravens Husky Haven and Rescue in Sycamore.

Stardust is devoted to caring for dogs, cats and horses deemed “unadoptable.” Tails is a shelter dedicated to finding forever homes for rescued dogs, cats and small animals, and took in more than 1,400 dogs in 2017, according to its website. Raven’s is a dog rescue dedicated solely to NIU’s mascot breed, huskies.

“[The exhibit does] a really great job of showing how animal welfare and sheltering have evolved over time in regard to dogs,” said Michelle Groeper, executive director of Tails. “We are so grateful to them for showcasing three different animal shelters where visitors can bring supplies to donate or learn how they can volunteer.”

Human culture is “saturated with canines,” Wilson-Loring said. As a dog lover and animal advocate herself, she hopes people leave the exhibit with a deeper understanding of how people and dogs are connected and the tools and motivation to advocate on animals’ behalf.

“People generally love their dogs and often have an amazing bond with them,” Laurie Kay of Stardust Animal Sanctuary said. “Sadly, though, care and concern often doesn’t extend past the dogs that live with them. … By encouraging understanding, we can hopefully cultivate a deeper compassion toward all species.”

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