Why were dogs domesticated?

Humans and wolves lived side by side for millennia before we turned them into dogs. So what changed? Why were dogs domesticated after co-existing for so long?


Why were dogs domesticated? That might sound like a question with obvious answers. After all, dogs are pretty great. More so for stone age humans, whose dogs could help them hunt or guard their camps.

Pictured: Stone age hunting dog2

So let me rephrase that question. Why were dogs domesticated so late? We lived alongside wolves for close to 50,000 years before we domesticated them1. If dogs are so great, why did our ancestors wait so long?

And what changed to finally let some furry friends into their lives?

Whodunnit

To figure out why people domesticated dogs we should probably first figure out who first did it. This is easier said than done.

It turns out dogs have one legitimate claim to being “mans’ best friend”. We domesticated them before any other species. Researchers still debate exactly when and where this happened, though the consensus seems to be “a ruddy long time ago”.

Possible ‘first dogs’ come from across Eurasia, with the earliest clocking in at around 30,000 years old. Prime examples include the Belgian Goyet dog3 (taking its name from the Goyet caves where it was found) and the Siberian Altai dog4 (also taking its name from the caves it was found. Scientists aren’t very creative with fossil names).

The Altai “dog”

However, whether these early fossils can be classified as dogs is debated. Statistical analysis shows they still share key features with wolves3. Meanwhile, genetic analysis is ambiguous; showing them to be more wolf-like but not quite fully within the wolf species4.

If this convinces you that the Altai and Goyet “dogs” are dogs are nothing of the sort you have to wait until closer to 10,000 BC for better stuff. That’s when we find art depicting people hunting5 with dogs and large dog graves6. Seeing a record of dogs leashed to a hunter makes for pretty compelling evidence.

The worlds first pictures of peoples’ pets

But even if you did buy into the earlier evidence, the problem remains. Humans first encountered wolves in the Near East or Africa >75,000 years ago1. People and wolves co-existed for tens of thousands of years before we got around to domesticating them.

So why were dogs domesticated?

So what happened to make us realise wolves would make nifty companions? With the uncertainty over when and where it happened, it’s difficult to say. However, there was one force affecting Eurasia for all of the period in question: climate change

This was seriously bad climate change, culminating in the last ice age. As if this wasn’t bad enough, during this period ice would break off from the poles. These are ‘Henrich events‘ and are pretty bad news. The influx of cold, freshwater would disrupt the ocean currents, further cooling the continent. The aftershocks of this were just clearing up around the time of the dog drawings.

Europe around the time of early evidence of dog domestication

Some speculate it may be these deteriorating conditions that forced man and wolf to co-operate, eventually leading to the creation of the dog1. Interestingly, this may not have been a conscious effort by the humans involved.

If wolves benefitted by living close to humans natural selection would favour the wolves we tolerated. In other words, the friendlier, cuter ones would flourish. In effect, they may have domesticated themselves7, something which may have also happened to us. But again, without knowing exactly when and where dog (or human) domestication happened, it’s hard to say for sure.

It’s also worth noting that these Heinrich-type events may not be a thing of the past. Scientists are scared that global warming may be causing more. Melting ice caps are dumping a bunch of fresh water into the oceans, hampering the gulf stream. Perhaps we may find ourselves in a similar environment as when we domesticated the dog.

I vote that this time we try and get the cat figured out. We still can’t take them for walkies.

References

  1. Schnitzler, A. and Patou-Mathis, M., 2017. Wolf (Canis lupus Linnaeus, 1758) domestication: why did it occur so late and at such high latitude? A hypothesis. Anthropozoologica52(2), pp.149-153.
  2. Marnell, R. et al., 2017. Personal communication.
  3. Drake, A.G., Coquerelle, M. and Colombeau, G., 2015. 3D morphometric analysis of fossil canid skulls contradicts the suggested domestication of dogs during the late Paleolithic. Scientific reports5, p.8299.
  4. Perri, A., 2016. A wolf in dog’s clothing: initial dog domestication and Pleistocene wolf variation. Journal of Archaeological Science68, pp.1-4.
  5. Guagnin, M., Perri, A.R. and Petraglia, M.D., 2017. Pre-Neolithic evidence for dog-assisted hunting strategies in Arabia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
  6. Grimm, David. “Siberia yields earliest evidence for dog breeding.” (2017): 896-896.
  7. Hare, B., Wobber, V. and Wrangham, R., 2012. The self-domestication hypothesis: evolution of bonobo psychology is due to selection against aggression. Animal Behaviour83(3), pp.573-585.

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