Do you ever look at your pup, who’s looking back up at you, hoping for a treat, and wonder: How did you ever descend from wolves?
Yet it’s true. All dogs, big and small, share a common ancestry. For a long time, we thought dogs were descendants of the modern gray wolves seen today. However, researchers discovered dogs are actually descendants of an extinct wolf species. This wolf would’ve roamed the Earth long ago, likely during the Pleistocene era.
But how did wolves become domesticated? It still remains a mystery. Researchers are trying to figure out not only how, but also the time and place when wolves became dogs, and whether it was a one-time event.
Much earlier than expected
Needless to say, researchers are learning more all the time. Many are starting to think dogs were domesticated prior to the agricultural revolution, somewhere between 32,000 and 18,000 years ago.
There’s some evidence to back this up. In 2016, archeologists made an exciting discovery inside the Chauvet Caves in France, famous for some of the oldest paintings in the world. In the back of the cave, they found ancient footprints of a small child. Alongside those footprints were paw prints. These 26,000 year old prints show the child and wolf-dog walking side-by-side together, suggesting companionship.
Burials can also support this theory. According to Scientific American, one of the earliest dogs on record is over 14,000 years old. Its remains were found buried alongside a man and a younger woman. In fact, no other animal is so commonly seen among human burials. It suggests our bond goes much farther back than expected.
Was food the connecting link?
As researchers close the gap on our dog’s timeline, they’re digging into how they became our best friend. One idea is called the commensal pathway to domestication. This theory suggests an animal benefits from a relationship with people, but people don’t really gain any benefit. It probably wouldn’t come as a shock to most that wolves would’ve benefitted from our food. Among human settlements, wolves could eat leftover food from people, but they could also prey on other animals interested in human food as well.
It’s possible these dog ancestors, less afraid of venturing onto human settlements, also had a genetic mutation predisposed for tameness, which eventually led the way for our dogs today.
Or was it just friendship?
Yet again, nature is full of surprises. In 2003, a lone black wolf became a star in Juneau, Alaska. Nick Jans, the author of A Wolf Called Romeo, describes how he & other residents came to share a magical bond with this fully wild wolf. Romeo, as he was called, was simply interested in playing with Nick and his dogs. For over six years, Romeo ventured into the community, and would enjoy playing fetch, lying down by Nick to nap, and would often wait outside Nick’s house until he would take his dogs out to walk. Normally, Nick explained to National Geographic, wolves attack strangers, or canines they don’t recognize. But Romeo was different. He was completely relaxed around others. It was a once-in-a-lifetime bond shared between species.
If such events occur today, it’s not a stretch to think there were wolves like Romeo long ago. Wolves that were simply curious about us, who wanted to play, and formed a unique friendship with people.
It’s fascinating to think our close friendship with dogs remains a mystery. But regardless of unanswered questions, we’re thankful for the dogs in our lives today.