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
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.