Dogs aren’t just man’s best friend – they were also one of our first.
Scientists believe that dogs were the first domesticated animal. Evidence indicates that dogs were domesticated anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 years ago. Domestication was a key moment in humanity’s history – the transition from subsistence off of wild hunting and gathering to intentional management of natural resources marks one of the first steps towards modern civilization.
When and Where?
Well, the simple answer is that we aren’t totally sure. But there’s several competing theories. One of the reasons for the huge range of possible dates is that it’s very possible that humans domesticated dogs on two separate occasions in two separate places. There’s fossil evidence suggesting that wolves may have been domesticated separately in both Asia and Europe.
Modern dogs are all about equally genetically related to wolves, which suggests the connecting species went extinct at some point and dog DNA became fairly homogenized. Wolves are still close enough to interbreed with dogs as well. This makes genetic evidence hard to interpret. The fossils could be from the evolutionary predecessor of dogs migrating around with human movements. Domestication takes a long while; there’s always the possibility that some fossils are from failed or abandoned attempts.
A majority of domesticated species were domesticated once and then migrated afterwards. If dogs were domesticated twice, that puts them in a rare category along with pigs and possibly cats.
So How Were Dogs Domesticated?
There is also some ambiguity on the actual domestication process itself. Regardless of the exact location and time, the domestication of dogs occurred prior to written history.
The more romantic image of domestication: an early human adopts a wolf pup or pups and raises him as his own, and they become more and more friendly over generations. If this occurred, it would require some significant work on the part of the wolf pup’s owner. Modern studies on wolves suggest that pups would need to be around humans almost 24/7 for the first 3 weeks of their lives to bond with them. After 3 weeks the curiosity response in wolf pups becomes secondary to a fear response and bonding with humans is unlikely. Modern dogs retain their curiosity and sociability much longer.
Alternately, it’s possible that wolves more or less domesticated themselves. Human settlements would generate a lot of food waste that more curious and friendly wolves would benefit from raiding. Wolves that learned to access human resources without being killed would have been more successful than threatening and fearful wolves, and thus produce more offspring. Eventually, humans would start to encourage these changes and benefit from dogs, shifting from natural selection into artificial selection.
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