Arguments over dog origins generally fall into two categories:
Where? And when?
Where and when has the attendant question of “How?”
In the late 90′s and the early part of this century, almost everyone believed that dogs were derived from midden scavengers in the Neolithic.
Towards the middle part of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Savolainen’s big mitochondrial DNA studies came out and suggested that dogs were domesticated in East Asia, eventually refined to southeastern China.
In the middle of the 1990′s, Robert Wayne’s early mitochondrial DNA analysis put the date of dog domestication so far back that virtually no one accepted it. His research suggested dogs were derived from at least four domestication events, but that the domestication happened 135,000 years ago.
Such an early date was universally poo-pooed.
Many became very heavily wedded to the Neolithic scavenger hypothesis and the attendant domestication= neoteny hypothesis, which has never been properly evaluated with proper scientific scrutiny. In this scenario, wolves scavenged out of the trash heaps of the Neolithic, there was a selection pressure for tameness.
And that was necessary for dogs to evolve from wolves. They had to live on a less nutritious diet, so their brains and jaws got smaller. Dogs are nothing more than neotenic wolves that evolved to live on garbage.
Now, this hypothesis is still quite popular.
But it’s got several problems, not the least of which is that many animals, including many species of wild dog, scavenge off of people, but they have not become tame, neotenic, or smaller brained as result of it.
And never mind that many claims about brain size and dog domestication result from improper comparisons between domestic dogs and larger brained northern wolves. When compared with the southern wolves from which dogs most likely derive, many improved Western breeds actually have brains that are the same size as those wolves.
And never mind that there are wolves that have been tamed and used as working animals. Historical records of which can be found all over this blog with a simple query into the search function.
Of course, historical research is actually outside the purview of most biologists, so they continue to operate in this paradigm.
Mark Derr recently took to task a recent article by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods that tried to posit that man and the wolf were constantly at war with each other and that the only way dogs could have ever been domesticated is through scavenging.
The truth is this entire domestication paradigm depends upon dogs being domesticated relatively late, for only during the development of agriculture would there have been enough resources in trash heaps to feed enough scavenging wolves that could then evolve into dogs.
In the first decade of this century, this hypothesis seemed plausible. All the paleontologists and archaeologists who had studied dogs found them to be no later than the Neolithic, except for a few strange dogs, like the now famous dog from the Bonn-Oberkassel site that dated to 14,000 year ago.
When I was first exploring dog domestication, this animal was sometimes treated as evidence that dogs were domesticated in Germany, which as a German-American had me somewhat enthralled, or as an anomaly. 14,000 years ago, Germany was not yet in the Neolithic culture. It was still a land of hunter-gatherers, so it suggested that dogs were domesticated before Neolithic agriculture and the corresponding sedentary life style became commonplace.
For most of the early part of this century, the Natufian culture of the Levant and the peoples living in southeastern China a few thousand years before were deemed to the first people with dogs. The Natufian culture sites, which date from 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, are full of dog remains, and these remains particularly influenced Raymond Coppinger, the prominent exponent of the neoteny=domestication hypothesis.
Now as that first decade of this century drew to a close, there were some findings that were beginning to challenge this entire paradigm.
The first of these was the discovery of an anomalous wolf skull from Goyet Cave in Belgium. This skull was initially documented in the nineteenth century, but a 2008 study that included that skull revealed that was actually much more similar to that of a domestic dog. The skull was dated to 31,700 years ago, but when its mtDNA was examine, it was found not to be related to any living wolf or dog. None of the European wolves that were dated to that time period in that study were related to living wolves or dogs (at least in terms of their mtDNA).
Many researchers simply chalked up the Goyet Cave ”dog” to another anomalous wolf.
Then, in 2011, another dog-like skull was found found in Razboinichya Cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia. It was dated to 33,000 years ago. This animal was deemed an “incipient dog,” which the researchers believed was just an early attempt at dog domestication which then had to be abandoned when the last glacial maximum forced humans to give up keeping pets.
Of course, this finding came out at about the same time Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog came out. Derr’s book was the first really cogent critique of the neoteny=domestication hypothesis, and it also tried to tie together all the various bits of genetic and archaeological and paleontological data into a coherent synthesis. In the book, Derr pointed to a recent genome-wide analysis that had suggested that the Middle East wast he primary source for most modern dogs, but he also posited that Central Asia would be the place where one would find the most morphologically distinct dogs. Derr contends that the Middle Eastern wolves followed humans out of the Middle East into Central Asia, where they mixed with those tamed wolves belonging to people from other parts of the world. Here, tame wolves were exchanging genes with each other and were not regularly incorporating the genes of wild wolves, and over time, this population of wolves began to look more distinct.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Altai Mountains are in Central Asia, and when I sent a link to the study to Mark Derr, he was quite excited.
But the main paradigm suggested that this animal was nothing more than a relic of an early attempt at domestication.
Until this week.
That’s because ta portion of the Razboinichya Cave dog’s DNA was examined and compared to that of dogs and wolves, including 35 prehistoric New World canids.
It found that the Razboinichya Cave dog was actually more closely related to the pre-Columbian and modern domestic dogs.
So this animal actually was a very early domestic dog.
In Mark Derr’s analysis of the study, he points out that the dog was not related to the wolves living in that part of Central Asia, which means that it may have derived from wolves that were brought there by people.
It does not negate the finding that the bulk of modern domestic dog genetic diversity comes from the Middle East, but it does provide evidence that the place where dogs began to become distinct from wolves was in Central Asia.
But it also shows that dogs were domesticated long before the Neolithic.
The dog is a product of the ancient hunter-gatherer societies of Eurasia.
It is not a creature that evolved on the scrap heap.
It is one that evolved with hunting-gathering man, most likely participating in the hunt, hauling huge slabs of meat, and guarding camp sites from all sorts of fell beasts.
This ancient dog from the Altai Mountains is the oldest domestic animal on record.
Humans and dogs have been at it a long time.
It’s only now that we have proof it’s been this long.