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Dogs and Humans: Special Bond Goes Back Earlier Than Thought

May 22, 2015 01:12 PM EDT
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Dogs have long been known as man's best friend, and now new research shows that their special bond with humans may go back earlier than thought.

Previous genome-based estimates have suggested that the ancestors of modern-day dogs diverged from wolves no more than 16,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age. But now, new DNA evidence from an ancient Taimyr wolf bone - which has been radiocarbon dated to 35,000 years ago - finds that this species is the most recent common ancestor of modern wolves and dogs.

"Dogs may have been domesticated much earlier than is generally believed," Love Dalén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History said in a press release.

"The power of DNA can provide direct evidence that a Siberian Husky you see walking down the street shares ancestry with a wolf that roamed Northern Siberia 35,000 years ago," added Pontus Skoglund, the study's first author. To put that in perspective, "this wolf lived just a few thousand years after Neanderthals disappeared from Europe and modern humans started populating Europe and Asia."

It's likely that many other dog breeds today are also related to prehistoric regional wolf populations, helping to explain why there is such incredible diversity among dogs.

Skoglund and his colleagues made the discoveries after analyzing a small bone picked up during an expedition to the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. Wolves are common on the Taimyr Peninsula, and the bone could have easily belonged to a modern-day wolf. However, DNA tests revealed that the bone belonged to the prehistoric Taimyr wolf.

Though this study allows us to better understand dogs' special relationship to humans, the precise moment when dogs were "domesticated" still eludes scientists because the meaning of the word is up for debate.

Regardless, there is no denying the loving bond that man - and woman - shares with their dogs.

The findings are described in further detail in the journal Current Biology.

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