If you are wondering how long ago did dogs begin living with humans, the oldest known evidence of domesticated dogs dates back to a 33,000 year old dog skull that was found in a cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, as well as a skull thought to be at least 30,000 years old found in Belgium. These two skulls’ ages were found using carbon dating, and are the oldest known evidence of domesticated dogs. These discoveries have altered the theories about how dogs began.
It is known that dogs originally evolved from wolves, due to the similarities in their behaviors and looks. Wolves have longer snouts, thinner jaws and spaced out teeth because they live and hunt in the wild. However, due to the domestication of dogs and their dependency on humans, they adapted and developed shorter snouts, wider jaws and more crowded teeth. This is how scientists can tell the difference between wolves and domesticated dogs when they come across their fossils.
Domestication of Dogs
Despite the evidence dating back 30 centuries ago showing evidence of domesticated dogs, the actual story of how they became domesticated is still a theory, but a widely popular one among scientists.
It was originally believed that some prehistoric person came across some wolf puppies, took them home, fed them and treated them like we do our dogs today, and the generations that followed became the domestic dogs that we know today. Although this sounds like a happy little story, there is a flaw with it due to the fact that wolves are naturally suspicious and aggressive of humans. A few researchers have attempted this theory by bringing wolf pups into their homes and treating them like domesticated dogs. It was found that at around 18 months of age that the wolves became too aggressive to live with, and became a danger to the humans and other pets in the house.
So, when did this actual domestication begin? It looks as if the starting point was the coming Ice Age. Prehistoric humans originally lived as nomads, who hunted large herbivores, or plant-eating animals. Because of the impeding Ice Age, and a cooler climate, the vast amount of vegetation available to serve as food for these large animals began to dwindle, which in turn greatly reduced their numbers, and many species even became extinct.
Humans in turn were forced to adapt. Instead of following large game animals around, they started permanent settlements, where members of the group could allocate different tasks, like gathering plants, something that would eventually give way to agricultural development. These fixed settlements led to the development of garbage dumps on the outer edges of the villages. This was an open invite to scavengers, which included mice, rats and wild canines, like wolves and jackals.
These dumps were a buffet full of meat scraps, bones and vegetables. These wild canines started to learn that instead of exerting themselves, putting their lives in danger and having to hunt, they could easily be well fed by hanging around these settlements and dumps. Eventually this area became their home turf and these canines became dependent on the dump as their main source of food. Any that may have been aggressive and a threat to the humans are killed or driven away, eliminating the most aggressive members of the pack, while leaving the less fearful and more tolerant of humans to live among the dump.
Today, research has shown that personality traits of fearfulness and friendliness are genetically determined, so the puppies of the less fearful wolves are more comfortable around their human neighbors and are effectively tamer. Over successive generations, the number of wolves grow and the tamest of them are comfortable around humans and openly foraging during the day.
The most sociable of the wolves have their advantages. Being this close to humans provides the puppies safety, since most predators stay away from humans. During winter months these humans use fire to keep warm, and by getting close enough these wolves can do the same. Eventually, these little advantages add up and increase the chances of survival for the most sociable members of the pack.
While trying to adapt to their environment, the wolves are unknowingly genetically manipulating their own population. As the friendlier ones hang out together closer to the humans they begin to breed with each other, further strengthening this trait. Over the generations, the original wild wolves have changed. They are now considered genetically different from the original wild stock that first began foraging in the dump.
After this point in time, the original happy story where the wolf pups that have been found near settlements and are taken directly into the homes of people is more plausible. The original theory now works because these wolves are not considered wild, but a new species that was naturally selected over time to already be tamed. It is from this point on that human intervention further shapes the nature of dogs as we begin to selectively mate animals that have desirable characteristics.
It is more than likely that humans realized the benefits of having these sociable wolves around. Our ancestors lived in dangerous times, with bigger animals seeing them as food, and other groups of dangerous humans around. The dogs living in the village saw the village as their territory as well, which meant that if an intruder or wild animal came near, they would bark, alerting the residents of danger. This alerting function was obviously one of the main motivations for domesticating dogs. Since dogs were always on the lookout, humans didn’t need to stay up guarding the village all night, which allowed for more rest and a healthier lifestyle.
As dogs became more domesticated people started to selectively breed them. Out of necessity, the most useful dog was one with a loud, constant bark. Because of this, humans began to breed dogs that barked the loudest, which strengthened this barking gene. In fact, today one of the differences between wild canines and domestic dogs is the fact that domestic dogs bark a lot, while wilds dogs hardly ever.
Eventually, the modification of dogs were much more conscious and deliberate. Dogs began to be for certain traits to be able to perform specific tasks, such as hunting, pointing, retrieving, pulling sleds, tracking, swimming and even provide a loving companionship. However, these recent modifications all began with the sociable personality that dogs had developed on their own while scavenging through garbage created by our human ancestors.