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The ancient domesticated dog of Europe was born from an early female gray wolf. At first look, she appears to be a beautiful dog on the road, note the lifted paw!              Source: Seney Natural History Association / CC BY-SA 2.0

Possibly 20,000-year-old Domesticated Dog Emerges From Italian Cave

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The remains of an ancient domesticated dog that spent its life with humans has been unearthed in an Italian cave . Believe it or not, this ancient domesticated dog is now considered to be Europe's earliest pet dog , and it might 20,000 years old!

How Wolves Became Wolf-like And, Then, Our Early Friends

The early ancestors of gray wolves ( Canis lupus ) were a group of carnivores, named the creodonts, that roamed the northern hemisphere between 100 and 120 million years ago. About 55 million years ago this ancient species gave rise to the carnassials, a group of wolf-like animals that had specialized jaws and razor-sharp teeth for tearing and eating meat. One member of this family, Miacis, is thought to be the common ancestor of all present-day wolves, bears, raccoons, weasels, and dogs.

Researchers hope this incredible discovery in Italy will provide new information on “how and when” dogs diverged from wolves and became domesticated human pets . Dr Francesco Boschin heads the team of archaeologists from the University of Siena in Italy that published the study on the Italian canid and wolf remains found in the caves. According to an article in Scientific Reports he stated might be the “oldest ever remains of a domesticated pet dog” found in Europe. The animal remains are expected to be somewhere between 14,000 and 20,000 years old. This was a time when humans and canines first began a mutually beneficial relationship that eventually made dogs our “best friends.”

Solving The Hows And Whys Of Early Canine Domestication

For millions of years humans and wild wolves shared the same hunting landscapes. While it is unknown exactly when domestic dogs ( Canis familiaris ) evolved from the gray wolves, we do have some important scientific clues.

A 2009 study published in the Molecular Biology and Evolution journal cites an analysis of ancient dog mitochondrial DNA that suggests they evolved alongside wolves “over 100,000 years ago.” Thus, many experts believe canines began scavenging due to a lack of food, and that humans slowly developed a bond with these animals that also acted as early warning alarms if larger creatures approached a campsite or entered a cave. Some scientists believe wolves and early humans hunted together and this is how the relationship was formed.

Some of the canine remains found in the Romanelli Cave (University of Siena)

Some of the canine remains found in the Romanelli Cave ( University of Siena )

The latest study by Dr Boshin and his team focused on bone fragments from ancient canines and wolves found at two paleolithic caves in southern Italy, the Paglicci Cave and the Romanelli Cave. These ancient animals, according to the research, are “the first dogs to live alongside humans as a pet.” Furthermore, according to an article in the Daily Mail , the ancient canine-human connection offers a definitive answer to the long outstanding question of how and when dogs first became pets.

The Transition From Man Eater To Man’s Best Friend

Dr Francesco Boschin said his team combined molecular and morphological analyses of the fossil animal remains found in the Italian caves. He said the results “attest of the presence of dogs at least 14,000 calibrated years before present,” representing one of the “earliest occurrence of domesticates in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe and in the Mediterranean.” However, Dr Boschin added that further analysis suggests this date could be closer “to 20,000 years” ago, or roughly 12,000 BC. Either way the cave canid remains provide exceptional evidence of the evolutionary process that would have led to the first pet dogs.

Arctic wolf pups (Canis lupus arctos), also known as the white wolf or polar wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf native to Canada's Queen Elizabeth Islands. (spacebirdy / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Arctic wolf pups (Canis lupus arctos), also known as the white wolf or polar wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf native to Canada's Queen Elizabeth Islands. (spacebirdy / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The conclusions of the latest study fit perfectly with a 2011 paper published in PLOSOne that describes the well-preserved remains of “a dog-like canid” discovered in the Razboinichya Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. These remains included the animal’s skull, both jaws and teeth. A comparison with wild wolves, modern wolves, prehistoric domesticated dogs, and early dog-like canids, revealed the Razboinichya canine was “most similar to fully domesticated dogs from Greenland about 1000 years old,” but it was scientifically dated to be 33,000 years old. This proves “dog domestication was multiregional.” However, the Razboinichya canid was an early incipient dog rather than the oldest ancestor of modern dogs.

The Evolution Of Wild Canines That Became Our Best Friends

Wolves were first attracted to permanent or semi-permanent human settlements in the Paleolithic period. The new paper shows that by 14,000 BP (12,000 BC) dogs had become a consistent part of human settlements. According to a 1995 paper by Dr J. Clutton-Brock, The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour and Interaction with People, “ soon after 12,000 BC, dog remains appear in human graves.” Therefore, these animals became “our best friends” by the time of the Neolithic Revolution .

Around this time, not having the same sharp teeth, tearing jaws or speed as dogs, humans were isolated and vulnerable. They seem to have “adopted” the canids that helped protect emerging hunting stations and year-round settlements. These ancient canines must have acted as early warning alarm systems, and, in times of famine, they could have been a food source, or a source of food through the animals they killed and brought back to human settlement areas. This ancient union of man and dog led to the oldest and most effective hunter-killer team on earth. In return, dogs got companionship, protection, shelter, and a more stable or diversified food source.

Top image: The ancient domesticated dog of Europe was born from an early female gray wolf. At first look, she appears to be a beautiful dog on the road, note the lifted paw!               Source: Seney Natural History Association / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ashley Cowie

References

Clutton-Brock J (1995). Origin of the dog: domestication and early history. In: Serpell J, editor. The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour and Interaction with People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 7–20.

Comments

“this date could be closer “to 20,000 years” ago, or roughly 12,000 BC”  Someone’s math skills are lacking!

From stardust I was born, to stardust I shall return

Bruce Nowakowski's picture

Given all the myths and legends our ancestors told, I would think at least one culture would have a story that survived which explains how wolves were tamed. we could then extrapolate from that.

How do they know that this wolf was a pet to the humans 20,000 years ago . How do they know if it was tame and not for the dinner plate at the time .

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