We Don’t Know As Much About Dog Domestication As We Thought

I know readers here will want to take a look at this NY Times piece entitled “Deeper Digging Needed to Decode a Best Friend’s Genetic Roots.”  The article comments on a recent PNAS article recounting the current state of disarray in the study of dog domestication.  As the senior author, Greger Larson of the University of Durham (UK) states, experts can’t agree on much other than modern dogs are ultimately descended from wolves.

I was fortunate enough to see Larson give a presentation based on this article at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in Memphis last month.  It was astonishing to see how many contradictory positions there are on dog domestication and how poorly supported many seem to be.  Larson’s recommendation is that the focus needs to be on the study of archaeologically recovered ancient dog remains and studies of their DNA – an eminently reasonable approach.

6 thoughts on “We Don’t Know As Much About Dog Domestication As We Thought”

  1. I think researchers are sorely mistaken if they think they are going to find the place and time of this domestication.

    We're never going to find the place because dogs have been as mobile as people are and the lineages have mixed with other dogs. The genetic data is going to continue to be contradictory. I don't personally buy the East Asia origin hypothesis, but I don't necessarily think the Middle East origin hypothesis is the whole story either. Dog lineages have died out over this time, and new wolf blood has mixed in over time.

    And we're never going to find the time because no one can agree on what the earliest wolves with signs of domestication are. Plus, it's likely the earliest stage of domestication involved animals that were not morphologically distinct from wolves. But you can't prove these animals are tame, other than they are found in caves occupied by humans.

    I think the best we can do is say dogs originated somewhere in Eurasia.

    And I think we ought to be fine with that.

    The problem is that dogs travel well and are ubiquitous, and their wild ancestors were much the same.

    And it happened so long ago– probably over a long period of time.

  2. I tend to agree with Retrieverman. It is amusing that some seem to criticize what is probably the best recent origins book, Mark Derr's How the Dog Became the Dog, because it is "vague". As Scottie says, the SITUATION is vague (;-)

    That said there is probably something unique scientifically about the "Oriental sighthound", or as John Burchard calls it the salukimorph, including saluki tazi taigan, Afghan in both old and even modern form etc etc– and I am NOT being a breed romantic. All genetic studies group it cladisticaly with the various "primitive", wolflike, Nordic etc breeds apart from all other breeds and closer to the wolf, not with modern sighthounds like the greyhound. Physiology and habits bear this out too.

    Unlike the breeds mentioned in the NYT it does live close to all origin points hypothesized from the ME to Central Asia; it is also different in that it is common, and extremely widespread– Africa to Mongolia and China, Siberia to the Indian subcontinent.

    My GUESS– which will probably remain that– is that it is an old Central Asian offshoot, perhaps the next step after wolflike breeds in appearance, useful, hardy, enduring, and not a specialized sprinter like the greyhound.

    Its main rival for an old non- wolflike type is the big flock guardian of Asia. There is some evidence both dispersed on geographically similar routes. But they do not group genetically as close to wolves.

    For more interesting theories see Pat Shipman on dogs and Neanderthals in Science or the less technical version in Atlantic online– good stats on the usefulness of having dogs to hunt with as an evolutionary strategy– salukis are a REAL help in open environments I suspect. Thanks to all who sent these two– too busy to blog it comprehensively yet!

  3. I don't have the biology chops to be able to engage either of you on that end, but I do agree that we will not likely ever get a definitive answer. There are undoubtedly multiple independent domestications (or semi-domestications) over the millenia and as Retrieverman says these continually back-bred with wild populations. We should be fine with a generalized Eurasian origin – though maybe we can get a better idea of date range.

    It was instructive to see Larson's map of the earliest archaeology dog finds and how it doesn't coincide at all with the "ancient" breeds. He introduced himself as a guy who has spent most of his career studying pig domestication that has only gotten into this dog business over the last few years. Fresh perspective I guess. Also unusual – a fortyish American teaching at a UK school

    This whole situation reminds me of the peopling of the New World question in archaeology. There is so much new data that is seemingly contradictory that the old paradigms are gone and the new ones aren't built yet. It's kind of fun if you allow yourself to embrace the chaos.

    Final note – the dog symposium where Larson gave his paper was the best attended at the SAA conference – SRO. I was luck to get a seat

  4. What aggravates me no end is how various theorizers just IGNORE(or don't even know about) different evidence regarding doggy domestication–you really MUST regard it ALL, archaeological, DNA/genetic, as well as historical evidence–and YES, there are PLENTY of comparable historical situations with primitive dogs/wolves and hunter-gatherers that common sense SHOULD make one realize, yes, this is likely how things happened. In reading/studying this favorite subject of mine(and you guys have heard me rant on and on plenty, of course!), I am amazed and apalled how little certain "researchers" know about the three things you MUST be knowledgable in to get a REALISTIC idea of the original possibilities for dog/wolf domestication. You MUST know all about wolves(captive and wild), you must know about ALL TYPES of dogs(herding dog people often have zero clue regarding hunting dogs, for example etc. etc.), and you REALLY MUST understand primitive peoples, especially REAL hunter-gatherer societies, and everything you can regarding our origins and development as humans(which, I believe, dogs had a HUGE influence on!) So often the doggy people don't know much(realistically, that is–not just whatever present "politically correct" views are inaccurately being bandied about at the time!) about wolves or Anthropology, the Anthros know ZILCH about dogs or wolves, the wolf experts are often woefully ignorant about dogs! and around and around we go……

  5. ….it would really help if these conventions on the subject(dog domestication) included people truly knowledgable in ALL THREE–wolves, dogs, and Anthropology–you cannot realistically seperate them! And having all together would help enormously to correct basic ignorant blunders each specialized group tends to make(for example, Coppinger seeming to be totally ignorant about hunting dogs and basic archaeological findings). All this DNA/genetic evidence is fascinating, but people too often just accept whatever findings they come up with as definitive, forgetting this field is still very new, and lots of mistakes are made(or MANUFACTURED!!!) I take all DNA evidence with a nice chunk of salt, myself! That article in the link was very interesting, but a coupla things I question–regarding the "basal" dog types–the Eurasier? REALLY? It was a recently(very!) manufactured breed(1960 in fact! That's when I was born! But then, there are those that refer to me as a "throwback" too!)–in the link to that link(I made a copy of the original article), they do at least say the breeds used to create the Eurasier are all "basal"(Chows, Wolfspitz, and Samoyed)–so WHY not just list them as "basals" instead of the more recently manufactured Eurasier???? And why in the heck, for genetic comparisons sake(since dogs and wolves have obviously crossed back and forth throughout history) haven't they collected genetic profiles on modern wolf hybrids? Lots of dog breeds, and various pure(?) wolves, but no crosses for comparison? That seems like a no-brainer to me……

  6. ….another thing that helps give a better perspective is the domestication of all the other domestic animals! I'm glad this pig guy is involved with the dog research! Wolves don't really seem so impossible when you realize all the other formidable critters "primitive" societies have tamed/domesticated! Wild boar, horses, wild cattle, frikkin' camels and elephants for Christ's sake! So many dog domestication researchers I've read or had discussions with have no knowledge of other domestications–how can you ignore that? If you really know wolves, dogs, and hunter-gatherer society, it seems like the association was INEVITABLE and happened very easily under the circumstances at the time. It would have been stranger if it had NOT! And although I agree that it very likely happened repeatedley, I think it likely first occurred wherever our ancestors first encountered wolves! We have modern historical examples of Inuit and American Indians who lost their dogs through famine/disease, etc., and utilized wolves to replace them until they could acquire or breed into their "pack" more dogs. Undoubtedley this happened again and again throughout prehistory…..


Leave a Comment