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A rock painting possibly depicting a person with a dog.

Bow Wow, Wow! The 45 million-year-old History of Dogs, And Us!

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Anyone who has a dog, or has experienced losing one, knows the depth and uniqueness of ‘that special bond’, but why and when in the history of our planet, did this love affair between humans and dogs begin? Discover the history of dogs and human interaction .

The History of Dogs’ Ancestors

The earliest known ancestors of Gray Wolves, a major figure in the history of dogs, are called creodonts. They roamed the northern hemisphere between 100 and 120 million years ago. By 55 million years ago, these pack hunting carnivores gave rise to the  carnassials, wolf-like animals that had jaws for tearing and devouring meat. One member of this family known as  Miacis existed between 60-55 million years ago and is thought by mainstream scientists to be the common ancestor of all present-day wolves, dogs, bears, raccoons, and weasels.

Reconstruction of the basal carnivore Miacis, which existed 60-55 million years ago and is thought to be the common ancestor of wolves, dogs, bears, raccoons, and weasels.

Reconstruction of the basal carnivore Miacis, which existed 60-55 million years ago and is thought to be the common ancestor of wolves, dogs, bears, raccoons, and weasels. (Mr Fink/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

About 45 million years ago, up to around 2 million years ago, a massive species known as Bear Dogs  (amphicyonidae) roamed North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia sharing hunting planes with C anis Lupus, one of the closest relatives to the modern Gray Wolf. Around 25 million years ago a species called Cynodictis split in two evolutionary branches resulting in African hunting dogs and Eurasian wolves and dogs. At this time in North America, the plains were dominated by the fearsome Tomarctus, equipped with razor sharp claws, a powerful biting jaw and a long tail for balance while hunting and fighting.

When Did Dogs and Humans First Bond?

Most theories suggest wolves became attracted to discarded food scraps at human hunting settlements and the species evolved as better scavengers than hunters. Tamer wolves that learned how to scavenge human campsites thrived, while the strongest predator wolves would be left behind, a theory backed up by Darwin's Theory of natural selection.

Between 100,000 – 8,000 BC early hominids and wolves shared forests and hunting plains and it is unknown exactly when domestic dogs ( Canis familiaris ) evolved from the Grey Wolf ( Canis lupus ). Until around 2010, most experts believed domestication occurred about 14,000 years ago but studies of dog mitochondrial DNA strongly suggest they evolved alongside each over 100,000 years ago.

European grey wolf in the Animal Park of the Monts de Gueret The Wolves of Chabrières.

European grey wolf in the Animal Park of the Monts de Gueret The Wolves of Chabrières. (Chris Oxford/ CC BY SA 4.0 ) The archaeological and paleontological records show grey wolf continuous presence for at least the last 300,000 years.

Supporting this new paradigm, in 2009 several ritually buried dog skulls were discovered in a cave in the Czech Republic which dated to 30,000 BC! Furthermore, in 2011 a Paleolithic dog skeleton dated to 30,000 BC was found biting a large mammoth bone and its brain had been carefully removed sometime after death, suggesting it held ritual significance. Another dog skull dated to 31,000 BC was found buried with a human body at Razboinichya Cave in Siberia, not only telling archaeologists that the man had domesticated hunting dogs, but that they played an important role within his supernatural belief system.

Paleolithic dog skull dated to 33,000-years ago of a dog-like canid found in the Altai Mountains.

Paleolithic dog skull dated to 33,000-years ago of a dog-like canid found in the Altai Mountains. ( Nikolai D. Ovodov, Susan J. Crockford, Yaroslav V. Kuzmin, Thomas F. G. Higham, Gregory W. L. Hodgins, Johannes van der Plicht/ CC BY 2.5 )

The relationship between humans and dogs was cemented at the dawn of farming, when people realized just how quickly a wolf could be domesticated with starch! Having sharp teeth, strong jaws, and speed, semi-tamed wolves were used to protect small hunting stations and in return were rewarded with companionship, protection, shelter, and a reliable food source.

By 6,000 BC dogs were being trained as effective farming tools and weapons used at times of inter-tribal fighting, and these inherent ancient skills are still evident today in different dog breeds. For example: guard-dogs, police-dogs, military-dogs, sheep-dogs, and rat-catchers. 

The rise of organized religions led to the ritualization of dogs and they were generally associated with the human soul’s journey in the afterlife. Canine deities were worshiped in ancient China , Egypt, and South America - where they were carved into statues and temples and featured centrally in mythologies and legends. Evidence of the ritualization of dogs was found in the skeleton of a male husky-like dog that lived 7,000 years ago in Siberia that had worked alongside humans throughout his lifetime, ate human food, and was ritually buried as though it were a human. What is more, a wild wolf was ritualistically buried nearby, perhaps once perceived as protecting human souls on their journey through the afterlife.

Anubis mask. Late period. Clay. H 49 cm. IN 1585. Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim.

Anubis mask. Late period. Clay. H 49 cm. IN 1585. Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim. (Einsamer Schütze/ CC BY SA 3.0 ) Anubis was an ancient Egyptian jackal headed god of the underworld.

Around 2,000 BC, the Iron Age saw Romans, Egyptians, Greeks, and Britons increasingly using dogs in warfare , blood sports, and violent entertainment. Larger breeds such as the mastiff and wolf hound were found to be effective in war and the ancient Roman historian Strabo reported in 38 AD of " large British dogs, which were bred in their homeland of Britannia to hunt dangerous game and as war dogs.” In 43 AD, at the Roman conquest of Britain, a Procurator called ‘Cynegii’ was recorded as selecting dogs for exporting to Rome to either compete in the amphitheater or to join the Roman army as war dogss. He mentioned a “wide-mouthed, giant dog that "surpassed the Roman Molossus dog”.

What Does The Future Have in Store For Dogs, And Us?

Today, like in so many aspects of life, dogs have become extremely polarized and we have specially trained medical dogs that detect cancers and smell when diabetic patients are suffering hypoglycemia (low blood sugars).

This is all happening as astronaut dogs are being trained in space programs and search and rescue dogs leap from helicopters and speedboats, not to mention military dogs that detect explosives and locate injured bodies in places deemed too dangerous for soldiers. A highlight in my research for this article was learning that in 1943, during WW2, the American Army began a 'War Dog training program” which parachuted puppies into war-zones to sniff out enemy tunnels and bunkers.

Marine Raiders take scouting and messenger dogs to the frontlines on Bougainville, late 1943.

Marine Raiders take scouting and messenger dogs to the frontlines on Bougainville, late 1943. ( Public Domain )

What on earth will dogs be doing in the future?

In the modern police and army, dogs that are trained to bite often suffer from broken teeth, which are now being replaced with sharp titanium fangs at a cost between $600-$2,000/tooth. Is this the beginning of a new evolutionary path for canines?

Like us, will we soon be able to sync our dogs with our computers and smartphones? 

In conclusion, the evolution of dogs, that has spanned nearly 45 million years, is far from complete and although we have altered its course irreversibly with mass breeding over the last 200 years, so far, no other animal has evolved to live alongside humans as harmoniously as dogs have.

Top image: a rock painting possibly depicting a person with a dog. Source: Hinocinte

By Ashley Cowie

References

Newton, Tom. "K-9 History: The Dogs of War!". Hahn's 50th AP K-9. Retrieved 2008-11-25.

Rose, Kenneth D. (1981).  The Clarkforkian Land-Mammal Age and mammalian faunal composition across the Paleocene-Eocene boundary University of Michigan Papers on Paleontology.

Sotnikova, M (2010). Dispersal of the Canini (Mammalia, Canidae: Caninae) across Eurasia during the Late Miocene to Early Pleistocene Quaternary International . 212 (2): 86–97. Available at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0022821.

Comments

Gary Moran's picture

Hard for me to imagine life without a dog. No other being gives so much back in exchange for a little food and attention, and I’ve seen them remain loyal even when mis-treated. 

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