The New York Times recently published a fascinating article on ongoing research into the origin of dogs. By collecting and analyzing the DNA of current dogs and the remains of their long-dead forefathers, scientists are hoping to determine when man’s best friend first appeared on the scene, and where.
When people have thought about the origin of dogs at all, they’ve assumed that dogs are simply domesticated wolves, first developed long ago when hunters shared food with wolves and trained them to become reliant on, and loyal to, humans. Scientists now believe that’s probably not what happened. They note that, although dogs and wolves are so closely related they can interbreed, there are important differences in their physiology and especially their behavior. Some scientists now hypothesize that dogs were, in effect, self-selected, and some variation of ancient wolf began to follow tribes of early human hunter-gatherers because scraps of food were readily available, and became tamer and tamer in their interactions with humans because the friendlier wolves were much more successful in getting food and breeding — which is the ultimate key to evolution.
But where did the domestication process happen, and when? Most scientists believe it happened 15,000 years ago, and the process was so rapid that by 14,000 years ago people were burying dogs, sometimes along with humans. Others believe that dogs are much older and that the domestication may have occurred as long as 30,000 years ago. As for where dogs first developed, the candidates range from Europe to Africa to Siberia. To try to answer some of the questions, scientists are collaborating on a vast world-wide DNA collection process and are hoping that, if they assemble enough data, they may be able to trace origins and find useful clues to answer these questions.
They are important questions, and not just for the dog lovers among us. (In fact, one of the scientists involved in the project, far from being a warm and fuzzy dog fan, contends that the modern house dog “may have evolved into a parasite.”) The period of human evolution from 30,000 to 15,000 years ago is shrouded in mystery, but clearly something was happening as humans progressed from roving bands of hunter-gatherers to multi-family tribes that formed settlements, built permanent structures, grew crops, and eventually created the first cities and organized civilizations. It is not far-fetched to speculate that the training and domestication of dogs, and their assumption of their familiar roles of protector, fellow hunter, and treasured friend, may have been an important part of that settling down process. Those of us who have and love dogs certainly can attest that there is a strong bond between humans and canines and that, in many respects, the bond makes dog owners better people.
Where did Kasey, and Penny, and Dusty and George before them, come from, and how did their distant ancestors affect the development of human culture? I’d like to know.