For millions of years, wolves hunted hominins just like any other prey. Yet wolves are the ancestors of dogs. How—and when–did evolution shape such fearsome beasts into “man’s best friend?”
The oldest known dog skull is about 31,000 years old. It was found in Goyet Cave in Belgium.
More evidence of early dogs is found in Chauvet Cave in France, where footprints show that a dog and a child explored the cave together 26,000 years ago. The first dogs resembled today’s Siberian husky in shape, but they were larger.
The first dogs may have descended from wolves that were attracted to human garbage. Perhaps they were younger, or braver and willing to come closer to human fires and human hunters in order to find an easy meal. Humans who fed wolf puppies would have learned that they made good guardians, trackers, and hunters, and that they could be trained as pack animals. Both dogs and humans would have gained something from the relationship.
Most geneticists (scientists who study genes) believe that all of today’s dogs are descended from one group of ancient wolves. Here is an interesting scientific question: how did so many different modern breeds of dogs develop from one group of wolf ancestors?
Secondary References (easier to understand; written in non-scientific language):
Vargas, J. Discovery News. “World’s first dog lived 31,700 years ago, ate big.” Discovery News. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27240370/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/worlds-first-dog-lived-years-ago-ate-big/#.T4dL99UZtio. Updated 17 October, 2008. Accessed 12 April 2012.
Primary References (written by scientists about their own work):
Verginelli, F., C. Capelli, V. Coia, M. Musiani, M. Falchetti, L. Ottini, R. Palmirotta, A. Tagliacozzo, I. de Grossi Mazzorin, and R. Mariani-Costantini. “Mitochondrial DNA from Prehistoric Canids Highlights Relationships between Dogs and South-East European Wolves.” Mol Biol Evol (December 2005) 22 (12): 2541-2551. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msi248. http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/12/2541.full. accessed 12 April 2012.
Acland, G., and E. Ostrander. (2002). “Population Genetics: The dog that came in from the cold.” Heredity. 90, 201–202. doi:10.1038/sj.hdy.6800224. http://www.nature.com/hdy/journal/v90/n3/full/6800224a.html. Accessed 12 April 2012.
Wayne, R., J. Leonard, and C. Vilà. (2006). Genetic Analysis of Dog Domestication. (2006). Documenting Domestication: New Genetic and Archaeological Paradigms. Edited by Melinda A. Zeder, Daniel G. Bradley, Eve Emshwiller, and Bruce D. Smith. University of California Press.