33,000-year-old dog skull unearthed in Siberia
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Last Updated: Thursday, August 04, 2011, 18:47
Moscow: Scientists have unearthed a 33,000 year old well-preserved canine skull from a cave in the Siberian Altai mountains in Russia, a discovery they say shows the earliest ever evidence of dog domestication by humans.

The skull, found by a Russian-led international team of archaeologists, is believed to be of a species from shortly before the peak of the last ice age and is unlike those of modern dogs or wolves.

Although the snout is similar in size to early, fully domesticated Greenland dogs from 1,000 years ago, its large teeth resemble those of 31,000 year-old wild European wolves, the researchers said.

This indicates that a dog in the very early stages of domestication, said study researcher Dr Susan Crockford of Pacific Identifications, Canada.

"The wolves were not deliberately domesticated, the process of making a wolf into a dog was a natural process," Dr Crockford was quoted as saying.

But for this to happen required settled early human populations: "At this time, people were hunting animals in large numbers and leaving large piles of bones behind, and that was attracting the wolves," she explained.

The most curious, least fearful wolves tended to have more juvenile characteristics with shorter, wider snouts and smaller, more crowded teeth, features that, over generations, came to define the domesticated dog.

These early dogs would have been useful to people in cleaning up scraps and fending off other predators such as bears, said Oxford University archaeologist Thomas Higham, a co-author on the study published in the open access journal Plos One.

But over the last 10,000 years after the ice age, they became key members of the team, he said.

"When you've got hunting dogs, all of a sudden it's a game changer. Hunters with dogs are much better than sole hunters," Dr Higham added.

Intriguingly though, this much older early Siberian dog seems to have hit an evolutionary dead end. While people continued to occupy the Altai through the depths of the last ice age, they seem to have done so without their dogs, perhaps as food became more scarce.

"What the ice age did was to cause people to move around more," said Dr Crockford, halting the process of domestication and setting wolves and people back into competition for perhaps 20,000 years.

Fortunately, the closest modern dog, the Siberian Samoyed bred to herd and guard reindeer, seems to have taken up where its ancient predecessor left off.


First Published: Thursday, August 04, 2011, 18:47

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