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Dogs were domesticated by humans far longer than was previously thought, new evidence suggests

Jun 16, 2015 01:31 PM EDT
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Dogs been known for quite some time as "man's best friend" - a fairly accurate label when you consider the number of hardships we have shared with canines.

It is well known that dogs were one of the first animals humans domesticated successfully. Until recently, however, the time it took for that to happen has been up for debate in scientific circles, with most experts thinking dogs were domesticated just a little over 10,000 years ago - around the time people gave up their hunter-gatherer ways and started planting crops. However, we now know that our history together starts quite a bit earlier - with new fossil evidence suggesting that dogs may have helped our ancestors hunt as far back as 27,000 years ago.

So how did this bond come about? Not too differently from the beginning of Game of Thrones actually - with early nomads likely capturing wolf cubs from their dens and raising them. A fossilized rib indicates that the split between dogs and their wolf ancestors occurred around this time. Until recently, many biologists thought Canis lupus, the gray wolf, was the direct ancestor of modern dogs. But the roots actually go back further - to a prehistoric wolf that lived in Siberia's Taimyr Peninsula during the Ice Age and is now extinct, a common ancestor that dogs share with C. lupus. Traces of its DNA can be found in Arctic sled dogs, which split from wolves possibly up to 35,000 years ago.

The large number of Taimyr wolf genes found in huskies are also seen at high concentrations in the dog breeds Shar-pei and the Finnish spitz. We thought of dogs acting as guardians on farms, guiding the livestock while keeping away wolves and other predators. The fact that domestication of dogs predates agriculture suddenly gives a whole new insight into how they were first used - most likely to accompany tribes of hunter-gatherers when they stalked larger prey.

Wolves and humans were initially competitors, but witnessing such events as a small pack of wolves confronting a herd of oxen before successfully taking one down - usually a carefully selected wounded or sick animal - may have led to our symbiotic relationship. The wolves get their food and the hunter-gatherers make their quarry with help from a species gifted with sharper senses of hearing and smell. It may have been just another step for primitive humans, who, by that time, already knew how to make use of tools.

Despite having to give up their freedom, wolves found their advantage in the partnership through diaspora. We see variations of the gray wolf in just about every region of the planet, from glaciers to deserts. As climate change ensued, they traveled with humans to new territories, picking up DNA from other wolves - particularly when humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge, and diversifying genetically in ways that would see all kinds of variations throughout the centuries ahead. The molecular clock was featured in the journal Current Biology.

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