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Dog History - How and Why Dogs were Domesticated

How were Dogs Domesticated?

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Young woman playing with pet dog
WIN-Initiative/Neleman/ Riser/ Getty Images Grey Wolf (Canis lupus)

Grey Wolf (Canis lupus)

Gregory "slobirdr" Smith Dhole Pup at San Diego Zoo

A three-month-old male Dhole pup named Nicolai is seen at the San Diego Zoo May 21, 2003 in San Diego, California. Nicolai is the first dhole ever to be born as part of the park's breeding program at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park.

Ken Bohn / Zoological Society of San Diego / Getty Images

Dog history is really the history of the partnership between dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and humans. That partnership is based on human needs for help with herding and hunting, an early alarm system, and a source of food in addition to the companionship many of us today know and love. Dogs get companionship, protection and shelter, and a reliable food source out of the deal. But when this partnership first occurred is at the moment under some controversy.

Dog history has been studied recently using mitochondrial DNA, which suggests that wolves and dogs split into different species around 100,000 years ago: but whether humans had anything to do with that, no one really knows. Recent mtDNA analysis (Boyko et al.), suggests that the origin and location of dog domestication, long thought to be in east Asia, is in some doubt.

European Paleolithic Dogs

Part of the puzzle of the domestication of dogs lies in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe, beginning perhaps as long ago as 30,000 years. Recent genome research (Thalmann et al. 2013) reports strong evidence that European Paleolithic dogs do represent a domestication event.

Evidence of a Certain Domestication Partnership

A burial site in Germany called Bonn-Oberkassel has joint human and dog interments dated to 14,000 years ago. The earliest "nobody-argues-about-it" domesticated dog was found in China at the early Neolithic (7000-5800 BC) Jiahu site in Henan Province. European Mesolithic sites like Skateholm (5250-3700 BC) in Sweden have dog burials, proving the value of the furry beasts to hunter-gatherer settlements. Danger Cave in Utah is currently the earliest case of dog burial in the Americas, at about 11,000 years ago.

Dogs as Persons

A reanalysis (Losey and colleagues 2011) of dog burials dated to the Late Mesolithic-Early Neolithic Kitoi period in the Cis-Baikal region of Siberia suggests that in some cases, dogs were awarded "person-hood" and treated equal to fellow humans. A dog burial at the Shamanaka site was of a male, middle-aged dog (probably a husky) which had suffered injuries to its spine, injuries from which it recovered. The burial, radiocarbon dated to ~6200 years ago (cal BP), was interred in a formal cemetery, and in a similar manner to the humans within that cemetery. Losey and colleagues believe the dog may have lived with its human family at Shamanaka.

A wolf burial at the Lokomotiv-Raisovet cemetery (~7300 cal BP) was also an older adult male. The wolf's diet (from stable isotope analysis) was ungulates, and although its teeth were worn, there is no direct evidence that this wolf was part of the community. Nevertheless, it too was buried in a formal cemetery.

These burials are exceptions, but not that rare: there are others, but there is also is evidence that people of the Kitoi culture (late Mesolithic fisher-hunters in Baikal) consumed dogs and wolves, as their burned and fragmented bones appear in refuse pits. Losey and associates suggest that these are indications that Kitoi hunter-gatherers considered that at least these individual dogs were "persons".

Haplotypes and Grey Wolves

A recent study led by Robert Wayne (vonHoldt et al., below) at UCLA and appearing in Nature in March 2010 reported that dogs appear to have a higher proportion of wolf haplotypes from grey wolves native to the Middle East. That suggests, contrary to earlier studies, that the middle east was the original location of domestication. What also showed up in this report was evidence for either a second Asian domestication or a later admixture with Chinese wolves.

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