Wolves likely were domesticated by European hunter–gatherers more than 18,000 years ago and gradually evolved into dogs that became household pets, say a research team based at the University of California Los Angeles.
“We found that instead of recent wolves being closest to domestic dogs, ancient European wolves were directly related to them,” said Robert Wayne, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in UCLA’s College of Letters and Science and senior author of the research. “Europe is where the oldest dogs are found.”
The team’s genetic analysis is published 15 November issue of the journal Science.
The researchers studied 10 ancient “wolf-like” animals and eight “dog-like” animals, mostly from Europe. These animals were all more than 1,000 years old, most were thousands of years old, and two were more than 30,000 years old.
The biologists studied the mitochondrial DNA of the animals, which is abundant in ancient remains. By comparing this ancient mitochondrial DNA with the modern mitochondrial genomes of 77 domestic dogs, 49 wolves and four coyotes, the researchers determined that the domestic dogs were genetically grouped with ancient wolves or dogs from Europe — not with wolves found anywhere else in the world or even with modern European wolves. Dogs, they concluded, derived from ancient wolves that inhabited Europe and are now extinct.
Wayne said that that the domestication of predatory wolves likely occurred among ancient hunter–gatherer groups rather than as part of humans’ development of sedentary, agricultural-based communities.
“The wolf is the first domesticated species and the only large carnivore humans ever domesticated,” Wayne said. “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.”
There is a scientific debate over when dogs were domesticated and whether it was linked with the development of agriculture fewer than 10,000 years ago, or whether it occurred much earlier. In the new Science research, Wayne and his colleagues estimate that dogs were domesticated between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago.
The research was federally funded by the National Science Foundation.