Most people know that the dogs people keep today as pets came from wolves, but it hasn’t been entirely clear when humans first started domesticating them. Some believe that dogs were domesticated around 10,000 years ago by groups that were settling and discovering agriculture, but new genetic data shows that the domestication was actually closer to 19,000 years ago in Europe. This study was completed by researchers at UCLA and was published this week in Science as the cover story.
The team compared the mitochondrial genomes of 18 prehistoric canids with 49 modern wolves, 77 modern dogs of a variety of breeds, 3 ancient Chinese dog breeds, and 4 coyotes. The information was used to make a phylogenetic tree to determine when domesticated dogs diverged from gray wolves. It was estimated that the split occurred about 18,800 years ago. Despite the deep history of dog domestication, around 4 out of 5 modern breeds have come about due to artificial selection within the last few hundred years. The oldest remains that resemble modern day dogs were found in Russia and date back 15,000 years, though he oldest wolf remains are about 36,000 years old and were found in Europe.
It might seem odd that humans were able to tame such fierce predators, but there was probably a lot for wolves to gain. At that point humans were still hunter/gatherers and likely had a lot of leftover animal product from hunts that the wolves were able to eat. Over time, the animals probably got comfortable around the humans and ultimately, a friendship was forged and humans were able to train the wolves.
Different hunter/gather groups likely began to influence the appearance of the wolves, as they became reproductively isolated. There are modern migratory wolves that do not mate with wolves that stay in the same general location, and the researchers believe that a similar situation might have happened with the first domesticated wolves.
This study found that modern domesticated dogs align more closely with ancient groups out of Europe, which challenges ideas that state domestic dogs originated in the Middle East or Asia. However, this does not answer all of the questions about where man’s best friend came from. Future research will compare nuclear genomes of more dogs, which have about 100,000 times more base pairs to compare.