Analysis of dog and wolf skulls found in a Goyet Cave in Belgium suggests that the first dogs lived 31,700 years ago. The canids with the smaller skulls were clearly dogs, based upon comparison with other dog skulls. The dogs were said to resemble Alaskan Malamutes or German shepherds with Siberian husky builds. Isometric analysis of the bones suggests that the dogs ate a lot of horse, muskoxen, and reindeer in their diets. These animals may have been killed solely to provide dog food, because the people of this time period were big game hunters, preferring to eat mammoths. In the Canadian Arctic, dogs are still widely fed caribou meat, so some of this evidence does have some merit in modern dog husbandry.
Further, analysis of the DNA of these animals suggests that dogs and wolves were much more genetically diverse in those days than they are now. This great genetic diversity could explain why analysis of mitchondrial DNA in wolves often leads to wide variances. Wolf populations have been fragmented since that time, which could leave behind certain populations that have genetic relics, like the Indian wolf and Himalayan wolf, which have recently been posited to be separate species. (I am not convinced.)
However, the study does not square with Peter Savolainen’s study of dog DNA that suggests that dogs have an East Asian origin dating to 15,000 years ago. The greatest diversity in dog haplotypes is in East Asian dog population. Humans have our greatest diversity in African populations, and we have lots of evidence that we are descendedfrom a single African population of hominids. The oldest fossil dogs that also date to that time period were found in the Sodust River valley, which is part of the Dniepr Basin. You can read about the supposed mastiff-type dogs that were found in there by clicking here.
I am fascinated with the Belgian findings. However, I am cautious about accepting them as valid. For one thing, there is now a 17,000 year gap between dog fossils. This gap is really quite large. If some more ancient “wolf” skeletons turn out to be dogs, then we will have more evidence of the ancient origin of dogs. Further, the scientists did not try to link the genetics of these dogs with modern dog populations. It is possible that these were semi-domesticated wolves that were a very early attempt at dog domestication that later failed and the dogs either died out or re-entered the wolf population through interbreeding.
The people who supposedly domesticated these dogs were part of the Aurignacian culture, which lived in Europe and Southwest Asia. They were hunters of big game, rhino and mammoth. They also may have been among the first people to develop religion. Most modern people from Europe and that Southwest Asia are not descended from these people, who were later replaced by the farming cultures that spread from the Fertile Crescent.
The study is really interesting. Robert Wayne’s original study of dog mitochondrial DNA suggested that they were over 100,000 years old. Savolainen’s orignal study suggested that dogs were 45,000 years old, but then he divided that number among the three main dog haplotypes to come up with an estimate of 15,000 years.
This Belgian evidence is tantalizing, but we need more of it. We also need to see how it fits in with Savolainen’s research.
Although small skull size is a good indicator of a wolf being a dog, modern dogs as we know them probably did not exist until the advent of agriculture and the development of a village settlement system. This move created a niche for a dog that could live on nothing but scavenged food, which is why Raymond Coppinger puts a great deal of emphasis on the Third World village dog as the ancestral form.