Ain Mallaha - Dog & Human BurialIt’s a well-known fact that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – but what about the other way round – could an old dog teach us new tricks? Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California certainly thinks so, and has been using DNA analysis on dog bones from early hunter gather sites to prove that canine domestication originated in Europe.

Dogs have played a major part in human’s lives for millennia, and their remains frequently occur within the archaeological record. At the Israeli village of Ain Mallaha, dated to 8,000 – 10,000 BC, one human burial lies with their hand resting on top of a puppy’s head in what modern dog owners will all agree is a clear demonstration of affection (see above). The origins of DogsThe specific archaeological arguments over the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of canine domestication however, have led to many a late night conference dogfight. Prior to the University of California study, the earliest evidence for canine domestication was thought to come from the Middle East or East Asia – although this is difficult to pinpoint because early wolf remains are so widespread in archaeological assemblages.

Previous researchers used DNA from living dogs alone to reach their conclusions, but some experts thought they were barking mad because of the effect dog-wolf interbreeding would have on the data. Since the 1990s Robert Wayne from the University of California has been extracting DNA from ancient canine samples but, up until 2010, he did not have the ability to sequence enough genetic material to compare. Now, working alongside Dr Thaalman (from University of Turku in Finland), Dr Wayne has compared DNA from a range of dogs and wolves remains dating from 1,000 to 36,000 years old with modern, living pooches.

His research has revealed some surprising results making him top dog and bringing some of his fellow researchers to heel. Firstly they showed that living dogs are actually more closely related to ancient wolves than modern ones, suggesting the grey wolf  – the ancestral breed to domesticated dogs –has since become extinct. It also suggested that modern dogs are most closely related to ancient European dogs and wolves. Furthermore, according to mutation rates and observed genetic differences they estimated domestication may have begun between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago, and therefore dogs may have taken his rightful place at the beside people some 15,000 to 20,000 years before the advent of farming. This goes against previous opinions that dog domestication was a natural accompaniment to settling down to farm.

Nevertheless this is not likely to be the last we hear on the topic. Some experts are not convinced, commenting that, because interbreeding over time can make such a dog’s dinner of results, there are still flaws and aspects that need to be tested further. But it does seem clear that, with the advancing of DNA analysis techniques we may learn even more about the beginnings of our four-legged friends, there’s life in the old dog (bones) yet.

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Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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