Origin of the Domesticated Dog

By: Emily Kubick
One year ago, I adopted a handsome Catahoula Leopard Dog named Max. Upon adopting him, I had pretty much zero knowledge of the breed. I knew he was handsome and somewhere in the herding/working dog category, but that was about it. Let’s be real, I’m not alone. Nowadays, the majority of dog owners buy or adopt based on appearance and basic “breed temperament,” with little research about the history of the breed. Why are they that way? So I started researching!

Before I go in depth about particular breeds and share truly interesting historical information, it is important to go back to the very beginning.

The origin of the domesticated dog is still a pretty unknown topic. There are multiple theories; Some researchers believe that dog, Canis lupus familiaris, began the process of domestication while humans were still nomadic hunter-gathers, which makes pinning down their exact domestication story difficult. Recently, DNA evidence and testing have been extraordinarily helpful in narrowing down the locations of domestication to Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia. DNA analysis has helped determine that canids may have been around for over 34,000 years. DNA analysis has provided researchers with an abundance of new information leading back to the origin but is still unable to pinpoint the exact beginning of our lovable sidekicks. The extinction of the ancestral wolf and the interbreeding of wolves and dogs over the past thousands of years has “blurred” the genetic signatures, making it slightly more difficult to trace back to the real OG of the dog world.

Before all this fancy dog DNA analysis, archaeologist used a very basic but useful method: Bone Morphology. Many researchers would use dog burials as evidence of domestication, finding bones dating back to approximately 15,000 years. About 12,500 years ago a canid-like skull was found in a cave in Mechernich, Germany.[1] Around 14,780 a confirmed dog mandible (jawbone) was found in Bonn-Oberkassel, Germany “associated” with a grave containing a 50-year-old man and 20-year-old woman.[2] DNA analysis confirmed that the canid was, in fact, Canis lupus familiaris, therefore a direct ancestor of the modern dog and also a sign of domestication. If a dog-like skeleton was found in a burial site with its humans, you can assume there was a pretty close relationship at play, which can infer domestication. This method also allowed them to witness the physical changes among these dog-like creatures as time goes on. Skull morphology has allowed research to see a prominent difference between skull size and appearance to help see buried dogs evolved from ancient wolves to proto-dogs, to eventually the modern dog. Proto-dogs were the middle man between the ancestral wolves and the modern dog. Simply put, the dog’s version of Homo erectus.The proto-dog was most likely the stage when dogs began to domesticate and change morphology to better suit their new environments.

There are three general theories of domestication: Prey, directed, and commensal.

Prey and directed domestication both are unlikely beginnings for our lovable sidekicks, but still interesting information. Prey starts with humans hunting large prey. Instead of killing them, they were kept and bred for future uses. Many of today’s “farm animals” were domesticated using this model. Directed domestication starts with a job in mind. Humans had a need to be filled and realized a certain animal could serve that purpose (typically animals used for transportation such as horses.) Then the animal would be bred to continue serving the humans for their intended purpose.

Commensal domestication begins by the involuntary acts of humans. Humans create a pleasing or desirable environment that attracts certain animals to interact with them. This related to the theory that wolves who were comfortable to pick on the scraps of the humans, were able to feed themselves better and survive.

There is another theory by some researchers who believe that humans saw how freaking adorable puppies were, snatched them up, and began to foster a positive relationship between the two species.

As time went on these dogs began breeding, and breeding, and breeding, and here we are. There are hundreds of breeds ranging from teacup poodles to Great Danes, all ancestors of this ancient wolf, also referred to as the grey wolf (not to be confused by the modern wolf). Yes, there is also lots of genetic engineering nowadays, but you get the point.

Bottom line: The actual origin of the domestication of dogs is complicated and mysterious. I loved this quote from archaeologist Robert Losey, explaining that our relationship with dogs is not one-sided. It is something we have fostered together over thousands of years:

“We need to reconsider how we think of dog domestication… It’s an ongoing process that continues today… and it’s a process that has no end. It’s an evolutionary partnership… I think of domestication as a multispecies process… It’s not something we did to wolves. It’s something we’ve done together.”

Works Cited

1. Thalmann, O. (2013). “Complete mitochondrial genomes of ancient canids suggest a European origin of domestic dogs”. Science. 342 (6160): 871–4. doi:10.1126/science.1243650. PMID 24233726.

2. Liane Giemsch, Susanne C. Feine, Kurt W. Alt, Qiaomei Fu, Corina Knipper, Johannes Krause, Sarah Lacy, Olaf Nehlich, Constanze Niess, Svante Pääbo, Alfred Pawlik, Michael P. Richards, Verena Schünemann, Martin Street, Olaf Thalmann, Johann Tinnes, Erik Trinkaus & Ralf W. Schmitz. “Interdisciplinary investigations of the late glacial double burial from Bonn-Oberkassel”. Hugo Obermaier Society for Quaternary Research and Archaeology of the Stone Age: 57th Annual Meeting in Heidenheim, 7th – 11th April 2015, 36-37

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