I written about virtually every discovery about ancient dogs.
When I first started writing about this issue, the accepted wisdom was that all dogs had an East Asian origin– largely based upon Peter Savolainen’s extensive mtDNA studies. There was greater mtDNA diversity with East Asian dogs than with those in other parts of the world, and thus, it was deduced that the point of origin had to have been in that part of the world.
In 2009, it was discovered that Sub-Saharan African village dogs also had very similar levels of genetic diversity to East Asia. Dogs are not derived from an population of African wolf, either of the lupaster subspecies or the Ethiopian wolf, and this evidence strongly suggested that the origins of dogs were elsewhere.
In 2010, Robert Wayne’s team at UCLA compared a large sample nuclear DNA from a variety of different breeds and wolves from different parts of the world. Using sophisticate “SNP chip” technology, they were able to compare domestic dogs to extant wolf populations, and they discovered that dogs were most closely related to Middle Eastern wolves. Because of their genetic similarity to Middle Eastern wolves, it was suggested that the Middle East was the point of origin for all dogs.
For the past couple of years, there has been a raging debate about dog origins, which generally fall into two basic camps: those who back Savolainen’s extensive mtDNA research (which I call East Asia origin theorists) and those who back Robert Wayne’s nuclear research analysis (the Anywhere But East Asia theorists).
To make things even more complicated, the oldest signs of domestication in wolf remains are from neither from East Asia nor the Middle East. The first of these was a skull that came from Goyet Cave in Belgium. It was a short-skulled wolf, and it dated to 31,700 years ago. Analysis of its mtDNA revealed that its mtDNA, which is inherited matrilineally and thus is not the best DNA to use for tracing origins, was not related to any extant wolf or dog populations. But the shortened skull strongly suggested that this an early dog, not a fully wild wolf.
Then there was the discovery of similar remains in Russia’s Altai Mountains. The Altai Mountains are in Central Asia, and this particular creature’s remains were dated to 33,000 years ago. Most experts thought it was not a dog at all. It was just too old. However, it may have represented an earlier attempt at domestication that then failed as the region’s climate became worse and humans were forced to give up trying to tame animals.
However, in March of this year, it was determined that this animal actually was a dog! It was closely related to New World dog and modern dog breed but not to any wolves from that region, which means that it had to have come from a different wolf population.
The remains and the DNA studies are in total contradiction with each other.
It is almost impossible to make sense of them all, and the most ambitious attempt to do so is Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog. All the other books I’ve read on dog origins just ignore data that do not fit whatever postulate is author’s favorite pet theory.
And as if we couldn’t handle one more contradiction, another study was released last week that pointed dog the origins of dogs with ancient European wolves. Analyzing the mtDNA from modern wolves and dogs and from ancient wolves and “dogs” from Eurasia and the New World, the authors found that all dogs were most similar to ancient European wolves.
Wayne, who initially posited that dogs were domesticated in the Middle East, now rejects that finding, claiming that those similarities come from dogs and wolves interbreeding rather extensively in that part of the world.
Wayne speculates rhat the ancestral dogs were derived from a creature he calls the “megafaunal wolf“:
One such wolf, which we call the megafaunal wolf, preyed on large game such as horses, bison and perhaps very young mammoths. Isotope data show that they ate these species, and the dog may have been derived from a wolf similar to these ancient wolves in the late Pleistocene of Europe.
Now, this changes some of my own views on wolf and dog origins. I have postulated that because dogs are mostly Middle Eastern wolves in origin, they are actually “southern type” wolves. Southern type wolves are wolves smaller brains than the big northern wolves everyone knows so well, and some dog breeds actually have larger brains for their body sizes than these wolves do. I have argued that it might be wrong to say that dogs have had a brain size reduction as a result of domestication. If they are derived from southern wolves, then some of our dogs may have actually experienced a brain size increase through domestication, instead of the decrease that is usually discussed when comparing dogs to very large brained northern wolves.
If dogs are derived from this sort of wolf, then they have experienced a brain size reduction, but one still should be careful before positing that dogs are less intelligent than wolves. Human brains are also smaller than they used to be.
I’m still going to have to think through what this finding means in the grander scheme of dog domestication, but one thing it does suggest is that dogs originated as a type of migratory wolf– a type of migratory wolf that hitched up with another species of migratory hunter.
It utterly debunks the hypothesis that dogs were self-domesticating scavengers from the Neolithic.
Dogs are actually much older than the Neolithic. They were the creations of ancient hunter-gatherer cultures that preyed upon vast herds of ungulates in the taiga and forests of ancient Europe.
They are not inventions of the agricultural era.
Instead, we’ve been at this a while
Human seeing. Canine smelling.