Ancient Wolves Are Giving us Clues to the Origin of Dogs

Ancient Wolves

The past is a mysterious place. This is because the further that we go back, the fewer the sources of information that are available to us. As a result, it should come as no surprise to learn that much remains unknown about the domestication of the dog even though it is a subject of considerable interest for a wide range of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Still, scientists are putting some serious effort into this, with the result that new information is revealed from time to time especially as it relates to dog breeds.

What Has the Study of Ancient Wolves Revealed to Us About the Domestication of the Dog?

Very recently, a study of ancient wolves was carried out by Pontus Skoglund as well as 81 other individuals. They sequenced the genomes of 66 ancient wolves. On top of that, they included the genomes of another six ancient wolves that had been previously published. The study is far from being comprehensive. Still, it has a fair amount of persuasive strength to it because the ancient wolves came from a wide range of locations over the last 100,000 years. For starters, the study revealed some interesting things about the ancient wolves themselves. They were separated from one another by huge gulfs in time as well as distance. Despite that, the ancient wolves were closer relatives than what interested individuals might have imagined. This suggests that they were mobile enough to interact with one another from time to time rather than scattered into local populations that were isolated from one another.

Moving on, the study provided insight into the location where wolves became dogs. Currently, the popular line of speculation is that the domestication of the dog happened through a fortuitous coincidence. Essentially, the idea is that wolves started approaching human camps during the Ice Age in order to get a hold of human scraps. This wouldn’t have been a huge issue because successful hunts would have yielded more lean meat than what humans could eat on their own. Over time, these wolves became more and more docile because that made it easier for them to use human camps as a source of human scraps. Eventually, they changed so much that they had become dogs rather than remain wolves. The issue is that no one knows exactly where this happened. There are a lot of proposed candidates, as shown by how examples include but are not limited to East Asia, Western Europe, the Middle East, and Siberia. In fact, it should be mentioned that it isn’t even clear whether wolves were domesticated once or more than once.

The study was helpful for some questions but not for others. For example, it showed that dogs are much more closely related to the ancient wolves from eastern Eurasia than from western Eurasia. As a result, it seems reasonable to interpret that to mean that the domestication of the dog happened in the first part of the world rather than in the second part of the world. Unfortunately, we are no closer to knowing exactly where the domestication of the dog happened. This is because none of the ancient wolves was a close ancestor of modern dogs. To be fair, this is to be expected considering the limited availability of specimens. Still, it means that the question of where the domestication of dog happened will continue to be argued over until more evidence comes out. In other words, progress towards a conclusive answer was made but we aren’t quite there yet.

Everything You Need to Know

On a related note, it is interesting to mention that the study also revealed that some modern dogs from western Eurasia as well as Africa are related to ancient wolves from western Eurasia to some extent. It isn’t clear what this means. Instead, there are two potential explanations for why this is the case. One, dogs were domesticated in eastern Eurasia before making their way westwards. Those dogs then interbred with the local wolves, with the result that they passed the genes from that interbreeding to their modern descendants. That kind of thing wouldn’t be particularly unusual. Even now, dogs still interbreed with wolves from time to time when the two species have access to one another. Two, dogs were domesticated in eastern Eurasia. However, dogs were also domesticated in western Eurasia. As a result, some of the dogs in western Eurasia and Africa are closer relatives to the ancient wolves from western Eurasia because that is where those dogs originated from even if that isn’t the case for other dogs. Ultimately, we don’t know which of these two scenarios is true. However, the first one seems stronger because it requires fewer jumps. We don’t know exactly how dogs were domesticated, so we can’t say as much about the difficulty of the process as what we would like. Still, we can’t just assume that it was so easy that multiple groups of people stumbled upon it. Certainly, that wasn’t the case for a lot of inventions that we tend to take for granted in modern times.

To name an example, writing is ubiquitous in our world. Even so, it isn’t as obvious a concept as it seems. Writing systems are thought to have emerged on their own just a small number of times. Both the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Sumerians came up with distinct writing systems, but they were in so much contact with one another that we can’t be sure that they did so on their own in both cases. Meanwhile, independent writing systems seemed to have come into existence in both China and Mesoamerica. Other than these, there is a small number of other potential candidates, though most of them are thought to be proto-writing systems rather than true writing systems. For another piece of evidence that writing isn’t as obvious a concept as it seems, we know that it is something that can be lost. The Mycenaean Greeks used a syllabic script that we call Linear B. When their civilization collapsed, that script seems to have died out during the subsequent Greek Dark Ages. Eventually, when the Greeks started writing again during the late 9th century BC and early 8th century BC, they did so using a new alphabet that was derived from that of the Phoenicians. Under the circumstances, we can’t just assume that dogs were domesticated more than once just because dogs were domesticated at least once. Getting something from another group of people is always easier than coming up with something on one’s own. Of course, we can’t say for sure that dogs were domesticated just once either. This study of ancient wolves revealed a lot about what went on. However, the light that it shone upon the process of domestication served to highlight how much more remains unclear at this point in time.

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