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The Origin of Prehistoric Dogs – The Domestication of the Pleistocene Gray Wolf
Note: Pleistocene refers to a Geological Epoch (from 3mya to 12,000 BP (BP = before present). The Pleisocene Epoch includes the last ice age when glaciers covered huge parts of the globe.
Pleistocene Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) were the first animal that early hominins or ancient humans (Homo sapiens) formed a mutualistic relationship with. This occurred during the Pleistocene Epoch. A mutualistic relationship is when two different species work together so that both organisms benefit from the relationship. These ancient humans most likely profited and learned from wolves and this relationship allowed ancient humans to outcompete other hominins such as the Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis), and even enable them to travel to areas that would otherwise have been inhospitable.
From times stemming as far back as the Middle Pleistocene period, bones have been found from wolves associated with early hominids. A site in North China dated at 300,000 years BP (before present), a cave in the south of France dates at 150,000 years BP, and a site in Kent, England dated at 400,000 years BP are just some examples of archaeological finds to highlight the association between hominids and wolves.
Earliest Domestication – The Paleolithic Dog
Note: Paleolithic refers to the Cultural Debris such as stone and bone tools that were found during the Pleistocene Epoch. During the Paleolithic period (~ 2.5 mya to 12,000 BP) early hominins (ancient humans) lived in caves, huts, or tepees. They were hunter/gatherers.
Gray wolves were the first domesticated mammal. They have interacted with humans for thousands of years, with evidence pointed to some time predating human agriculture and occurring in the Old World over 30,000 years ago. There are conflicting views as to how, when, or why the relationship first formed but it is widely accepted that ancient gray wolves and humans not only lived near each other for thousands of years, but they hunted many of the same animals and learned from each other.
Both humans and wolves lived in groups (wolf packs/hunter-gatherer societies or villages) and both developed social skills such as communication and cooperation and it is believed that these similarities were the catalyst to the evolution of dogs. Although most wolves would have avoided humans, there were a few that got close enough to humans to be able to eat food scraps. These canines (village wolves) originated from Pleistocene gray wolves, probably from a population now extinct. Humans allowed the friendlier wolves to stay and live nearby, which was quite beneficial to the village wolves as there was a regular easy food source and they thrived. The trait of friendliness was passed to their offspring. Over time, the descendants of the original village wolves changed in both physical and behavioural ways. Selection of traits was not only an evolutionary mechanism but also resulting from bottlenecking or founder effects. The bottleneck effect occurs when there is a sharp reduction in the size of a population, in this case due to the village wolves no longer associating with the original wolves, and thus massively reducing the size of the gene pool available for breeding. The descendants of these particular wolves are sometimes referred to as Paleolithic (Canis c.f. familiaris) or prehistoric dogs. They were smaller than the wolves of their time and much less aggressive. Over time, the Paleolithic dogs’ tails began to curl, ears became floppy instead of erect, coat colour variations developed, teeth were smaller, and their snouts were shorter than the other wolves. Eventually, something that we would recognize as a dog emerged. This was a long-term process, not a singular event, and occurred over many thousands of years.
When Did the Domestic Dog First Appear?
Archaeological evidence pointing to domesticated dog (Canis familiaris) is dated around the end of the last Ice Age. At this time, humans were hunters and gathers and agriculture did not yet exist. The oldest domestic dog remains found so far were located at a site in Germany and are dated as being from the late Paleolithic period at 14,000 BP.
Why Did Humans Domesticate Wolves?
Hunters probably killed mature wolves for their fur, for self defence or possibly because both humans and wolves often hunted the same animals for food, and they were competition. Pups left behind were likely killed for food too but occasionally may have been kept instead. Those pups would become habituated to the group and be tamed. Wolf pups that grew more aggressive as they matured would have been killed and those that were more submissive and easier to tame would have been kept as hunting companions, for comfort or warmth, and for protection from outside threats.
The Domestic Dog
As time went on, these new animals, dogs, became useful in many other ways. Some were used to pull sleds for travel, while others were used to guard livestock after sheep were domesticated at the start of the agricultural period. The process of selection breeding continued until multiple varieties of stock dogs had emerged. These stock dogs or Landrace dogs are the foundation of most other working breeds. One example of a Landrace dog is the Scotch Collie. Other breeds that emerged from the Scotch Collie are the Border Collie and the Rough Collie.
Learn more about Border Collies and Landrace Dogs here:
Some wolves were chosen for specific physical and behavioural traits to breed with other similar wolves because they were more useful and less dangerous. The amazing evolutionary processes that subsequently occurred could not have been predicted. It is not at all probable that ancient humans were aware they were helping to create a brand-new species however they played a significant role as the main catalyst in the domestication process. The domestication of wolves would never have occurred without human intervention, even if other events such as bottlenecking, and natural selection also played a significant part in the creation of dogs.