European Origin of “Domesticated Dogs” At Least 18,000 Years Ago

The results of an extensive study of wolves and domesticated dogs including analysis of fossil material has led a team of scientists to conclude that dogs were first domesticated in Europe.  The likes of Charles Darwin did not know, after all, genetics was a branch of science that was unknown to the co-author of the theory of natural selection (Darwin and Wallace jointly presented their ideas in 1858 to the Linnean Society), but it is now widely accepted that all domesticated dogs are descended from the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus).  Just when dogs became a part of people’s lives and started to work in partnership with humans is a hotly debated subject.  The emergence of a form of “domesticated” dog has now been mapped and this new study points to an origin from Europe and at least 18,000 years ago.  It all depends on where you are in the world as to whether 18,000 years ago is classed as the Mesolithic “Middle Stone Age” or the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic), as these time periods are defined by the development and use of tools and other artefacts by indigenous populations, either way, mankind’s relationship with dogs goes back a very long way.

The team of researchers from Turku University (Finland) have somewhat “muddied the waters” when it comes to assessing when and where dogs began to have a much closer relationship with our own species.  Earlier studies had indicated that wolves began to attach themselves with human settlements in the Middle East or perhaps in the near Asia region as recently as 15,000 years ago.  This new data, based on the DNA samples, pushes our relationship with “man’s best friend” further back into prehistory and locates the first domestication as being in Europe.

Scientists Looked at Fossil Evidence from Dogs Buried Close to Human Settlements

Analysis of DNA may hold the key to unravelling the mystery of dog domestication.

However, fossil evidence has challenged this earlier research and indeed, a remarkable excavation site in southern Siberia, dated to around 33,000 years ago (definitely Palaeolithic but who’s counting), puts the date of dog domestication, or at least descendants of wolves having a close relationship with mankind, much further back in time than even this new Finnish study suggests.

To read an article about the discoveries from the southern Siberian dig site: It’s a Dog’s Life!

One of the problems associated with trying to identify exactly where and when dogs began to live alongside humans is that palaeontologists have found some distinctly dog-looking fossil evidence in various sites around both the Old and the New World.  For this research, the scientists looked at the mitochondrial genomes from present-day dogs and wolves, as well as from eighteen fossil Canids, whose remains date from between 1,000 and more than 36,000 years old.

Dr. Olaf Thalmann (Turku University) and his colleagues used genetic sequences from a wide range of fossil and extant sources in order to gain an understanding of the great diversity of dog breeds around today and how they relate to the remains of dogs excavated from various fossil sites.  The analysis revealed that modern dogs are most closely related to ancient European wolves or dogs, they are not closely related to any of the wolf groups from outside Europe.  Intriguingly, the research suggests that domesticated dogs have a link with a strain of ancient European wolf, one that is extinct.  The proposed “start point” for domestication going back beyond 18,000 years is certainly fascinating.  It suggests that dogs began to separate out of wolf populations when our species was nomadic.  Dog domestication may actually have occurred long before we began to settle in farming communities.  It seems that dogs may have come “walkies” with us when we were very much hunters and gatherers.

A spokes person from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Both wolves and ourselves are diurnal hunters, perhaps the wolves that were the ancestors of the first domesticated dogs followed human hunting trips, to feed off the scraps that we left behind from the hunting of large, herbivorous mammals like Elk, Ox, Mammoth and Woolly Rhino.  Or indeed, it could have been the other way round with human hunting parties scavenging the kills of wolf packs.”

Over time, wolves and humans began to tolerate each other’s presence and the first steps on the long road to mutual co-operation and subsequent domestication were taken.

Explaining some of the reasoning behind the team’s work, Dr. Thalmann stated:

“You can see how the wolves benefitted from living near humans because they got to the carcases, but humans too would have benefitted.  You have to remember that 18,800 to 32,000 years ago, Europe had much bigger predators than even the wolves, animals such as bears and hyenas.  You can imagine that having wolves living close to you might prove to be a very useful alarm system.  It is a plausible scenario for the origin of the domestication of dogs.”

The precise details surrounding the origin of today’s domesticated canine remain unclear.  The genetic markers that can be traced are extremely difficult to interpret, not helped that due to mankind’s movements, dog populations have become very mixed over time.  In addition, it seems that some populations of dogs may have back-bred with wild wolves causing further confusion.  This particular study and indeed, the majority of the earlier studies, relied on so-called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), a small sub-packet of genetic material in cells that is normally passed down through the generations solely on the maternal line, although incredibly useful,  mtDNA does not represent the fullest information possible.  The much larger DNA retrieved from the cell nucleus (nuclear DNA), could provide a lot more genetic information, but the DNA’s poor preservation ability, the risk of cross-contamination and the difficulty of retrieving substantial amounts from fossils are formidable barriers to progress.

The findings of this research, published in the academic journal “Science”, suggest that an ancient, extinct central European population of wolves gave rise to the domestic dog.  In addition, evidence from the mtDNA indicates that several other types of ancient dog found in the fossil record may represent ultimately doomed previous domestication attempts.   If enough nuclear DNA is recovered from the fossil record, a clearer understanding of our relationship with dogs can probably be obtained, but for the moment it looks like the origins of today’s pets and working dogs are in central Europe and the bond between man and dog goes back into the Palaeolithic.

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