When you’re chucking a ball in the park for your dog to chase or snuggling up with your furry best friend in front of the TV at night, you might not have given much thought to how our beloved pets got so friendly, or where dogs came from.
Dogs go back an incredible 60 million years, to the time of Palaeocene Epoch. Dogs from this time did not look like the dogs we know today. They lived in North America and looked vaguely like a weasel.
By 35 million years ago, dogs had evolved a little more. The Leptocyon looked like a fox and walked on its toes. About 20 million years back, the Mesocyon and Miocene versions were much more dog-like and had a larger brain. This enabled them to recognise their family, which might have led to the pack mentality.
Around five million years ago, wolves took over. Today’s dogs are thought to have evolved from a group of grey wolves, although several theories exist.
The most popular view is that dogs evolved from a bunch of domesticated wolves around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. These wolf ancestors were drawn to humans by the food we left in our wake. This made the wolf tamer and the start of their domestication.
As a result of the domestication of wolves, people found these wolves useful for sounding alarms and for hunting large prey. Gradually the trained and tamed wolves turned into the dogs similar today.
Recent research published in the journal, Science, attempts to find out where this took place. Researchers collected 36,000-year-old DNA from fossils of wolf-like and dog-like animals from South America, Europe and the US. They compared this material to that of wolves living in North America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, a range of dog breeds and four coyotes.
Modern-day dog DNA resembled the genetic make-up of the old European animals and today’s European wolves. Dr Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles also concluded that the first dogs evolved by following hunter-gatherers, not farmers, as dogs existed before agriculture.
He also said that the type of wolf from which dogs evolved is now extinct and that his results point to an origin more likely in Europe than Asia or the Middle East.
Another of the study’s authors, Olaf Thalmann of the University of Turku in Finland, suggested Europe isn’t the only place where dogs came from, but he concluded that Europe played a major role in the domestication process.
Dogs now hold a big position in our society. We take them on dog friendly holidays, ensure their needs are met and place them in high regard. But, we do know that their animal instinct is still intact when a squirrel dare cross their paths and they’ll certainly still forage for food if the bin is in eyesight.