A study recently published in the journal Science suggests that Europe may be the origin of the modern domesticated dog. According to the study, researchers analyzed genetic material from modern canines and compared them to 18 fossil specimens dating from 1,000 to 36,000 years ago. The researchers concluded that an ancient but now extinct species of wolves in central Europe is likely to be the direct ancestor of the modern dog. There is also evidence of failed attempts to domesticate dogs elsewhere in Europe.
“Really to our surprise, it suggests that the origin of modern dogs was from Europe, not from the Middle East or east Asia—and that it occurred about 20,000 years ago,” lead author Robert Wayne told Science. Wayne is an evolutionary biologist at the University of California.
NBC News reported that Wayne’s team believe wolves adapted alongside ancient hunter-gatherers sometime between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago. The canines likely followed hunters around, eager to take advantage of any meat the humans left behind. Over time, early human societies discovered that the wolves were useful for harrying game while hunting and attempted to tame the species. As the wolves’ role in human society grew, they began to show the characteristics of modern dogs as we know now them.
“The wolf is the first domesticated species and the only large carnivore humans ever domesticated,” Wayne said in an UCLA press release. “This always seemed odd to me. Other wild species were domesticated in association with the development of agriculture and then needed to exist in close proximity to humans. This would be a difficult position for a large, aggressive predator. But if domestication occurred in association with hunter-gatherers, one can imagine wolves first taking advantage of the carcasses that humans left behind—a natural role for any large carnivore—and then over time moving more closely into the human niche through a co-evolutionary process.”
Wayne is the first to admit that while it has opened up a new avenue of research, his team’s study is not conclusive. The study does not imply that Europe was the only place where canines were domesticated, though the team made no similar findings in the Middle East or eastern Asia. However, researchers say that the study’s findings could shift the focus of early canine research to Europe.
“We conclude that Europe played a major role in the domestication process,” another of the study’s authors, Olaf Thalmann, told Fox News in an email.
Ultimately, Wayne says the new data is “persuasive” but has to be confirmed by follow-up research.
“This is not the end-story in the debate about dog domestication, but I think it is a powerful argument opposing other hypotheses of origin,” he said.
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