We all know that our dogs’ noses are pretty amazing. They can detect literally almost anything, from bombs, drugs and cadavers to detecting tumors and tracking whales across open ocean.

Now here’s the latest wrinkle: their sense of smell is so acute and so discriminatory that they can be trained to find not bodies, but bones, ancient bones hundreds of years old. They can, quite literally, smell the distant past.

From this story on National Geographic:
Australian dog trainer Gary Jackson of Multinational K9 has trained a black lab mix named Migaloo as the world’s first “archaeology dog,” able to locate bones that are hundreds of years old. He spoke with National Geographic magazine’s Amanda Fiegl. What gave you the idea to train an archaeology dog? I like to experiment with things that have never been tried before. I’ve trained dogs to find cane toads, koalas, lots of unusual things. So I thought: Can you imagine the discoveries in archaeology that could happen around the world, if dogs could be trained to locate human bones? For years, people have been training cadaver dogs to find decomposed bodies. But the problem with that is at some point rot becomes the primary odor rather than the actual human odor. And many things are rotting throughout a forest. By training the dog on just human bones, you eliminate those distraction odors.

So how did Jackson train Migaloo to key in on bones and bones alone? By having a ball, literally…

She loves to play, and she’s an absolute nut about her ball. I think she would chase it till she drops dead. So, once we trained her to recognize the odor of human bones, and taught her that she only gets her ball when she finds the target odor, she became obsessive with trying to find that odor. Now, I just have to bounce the ball a few times and say: “D’ya want this? Find.” She’ll go out and start sniffing like a hyperactive kid, and before long she lets me know: “I’ve got something!”

I suppose it’s not much different from training your dog to seek out and pick up sheds, and it’s a vivid example of just how almost supernaturally sensitive our dogs’ noses truly are.