Ever thought about keeping a wolf? Probably not… To understand how wolves evolved into modern dogs and started living with humans, researchers wanted to find out exactly where and when this happened. Using many samples from prehistoric and modern dogs and wolves, they isolated the genetic material in mitochondria. By comparing those DNA sequences, they find that the origin of dogs most likely lies in Europe, about 19,000 to 32,000 years ago.

However, the small mitochondrial genome may not be specific enough to draw out evolutionary trees, and it is hard to find well-preserved prehistoric samples from the Middle East, where some believe dogs originated. It could have happened independently at different places too, but why? Probably, it started out as a symbiotic relationship for hunting; the wolves that were tame enough to go help the humans hunt had an easier time getting food and were selected for dog-like, likeable properties.

A group in Russia tried to reproduce this selection event: when they kept breeding the tamest pup from a fox litter, they could eventually generate friendly, domesticated foxes! So perhaps dog shows build on an ancient tradition of finding the perfect companion?

Commentary on ‘Complete Mitochondrial Genomes of Ancient Canids Suggest a European origin of Domestic Dogs’ by O. Thalmann et al. 

Link to article on the domestication of foxes.

To read more on human archeology in the SITN archives, see here

Many thanks to Bridget Alex for commenting and contextualizing this story.

Managing Editor: Marti Borkent 

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