Dogs are often labeled “man’s best friend,” but really, it’s more accurate to say that we’re their best friends. After all, who’s feeding and scooping poop for whom, here? Regardless, the moniker came about because humans and domesticated dogs have a relationship that reaches back thousands of years. Now, according to a DNA analysis of an ancient wolf specimen by researchers from Harvard University Medical School and the University of Stockholm, the friendship stretches back much further than anyone previously thought: At least 27,000 years.
“It seems that the dog was domesticated much earlier than previously thought. One possible scenario is that the domestication began at least 27,000 years ago, but that it took many thousands of years before intense selection by humans led to the development of typical dog-like morphology”, says Love Dalén of Stockholm University.
It’s only recently that scientists have understood the road map that lead to today’s domestic dogs. Earlier theories held that dogs were descended from grey wolves, a kind of linear evolution of the same species (in fact, some dog food commercials still try to push this idea). However, it was eventually discovered that dogs and wolves aren’t that related at all – they split from a common ancestor thousands of years ago, and have been evolving independently ever since. The researchers believe the specimen they found on the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia may be an example of that common ancestor.
The jaw bone, which initially looked so much like a modern wolf’s that they almost didn’t bother with it, was revealed via radiocarbon dating to belong to a Taimyr wolf, an ancient species. Dated to 35,000 years ago, it serves as a marker for when wolves and dogs would have begun to go their separate ways.
“It may have been a long process when the wolf became dog. One theory is that the process was started by wild wolves who voluntarily started to be around people to, among other things, exploit that there was food in the vicinity where people lived”, says Harvard Medical School’s Pontus Skoglund, who is lead author of the study.