When And Where Did Dogs Become Man’s Best Friend?

When And Where Did Dogs Become Man’s Best Friend?

It may have happened in Europe over 19,000 years ago.

Dogs come in all shapes, sizes and colours. From the Chihuahua to the St Bernard, the variation is so large that Darwin and others once believed they descended from various wild animals, including the fox and the jackal. However, genetic studies have since revealed that all dogs have the grey wolf (Canis lupus) as their only canine ancestor.

After many years of intense breeding and selection programmes, this variation is easy to explain, but exactly when and where this ferocious predator was converted to Man’s best friend is still a bone of contention among researchers.

Unfortunately, identifying the first domesticated dogs is an impossible task. These dogs would look exactly like wild wolves and it would take many generations for differences to be apparent in archaeological records. Not surprisingly then that different studies reached dramatically different conclusions.

One suggestion of domestication occurring over 100, 000 years ago is usually seen as extreme, and more conservative estimates accepted so far usually place this event at about 10,000-15,000 years ago. As for location, China and Middle East have been the leading contenders, but scattered archaeological remains spread from Northern China and Far Eastern Russia, to Cyprus or Iraq greatly entangle the dog vs. wolf story.

New study points to Europe

Recently, however, analysis of mitochondrial DNA from both pre-historic and modern wolves and dogs may have finally unravelled the mystery. Surprisingly, this new version of the dog’s family tree clearly points at Europe as the spotlight for domestication. And it happened more than 19,000 years ago.

“We have convincing evidence that dogs originated from Europe given the close relationship of modern dogs and ancient wolves and dogs from Europe”, said Dr Olaf Thalmann, geneticist from the University of Turku in Finland. The researcher goes as far as saying that “the wolf population that gave rise to modern dogs is most likely extinct and the earliest dogs are not directly ancestral to modern dogs but present rather an extinct lineage”.

4 groups of dogs

According to this new family tree, there are four groups of dogs, all with European ancestry, the oldest between 19,000 and 32,000 years old. The authors defend domestication must have occurred at some point in this window. “With respect to the fossil record, our results fit perfectly”, said Thalmann. The oldest records found in Europe date back at least 15,000 years; while remains found in Asia are believed to be only 13,000 years old.

More importantly, this contradicts the idea that the first farmers were responsible for domesticating dogs. It turns out that dogs became our faithful companions even before the appearance of the first settlements. The appeal presented by hunter-gatherers was enough to arouse the wolf’s curiosity and approach humans.

“One could imagine a scenario where both parties benefited from an early co-existence”, said Thalmann. “Wolves would profit from food remains left by humans at hunting sites or close to their settlements and humans, on the other hand, would benefit from protection/defence against other predators given by wolves living in close proximity”.


Photo: Flickr,  pmarkham
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Alex Reis

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