European Paleolithic Dogs - Domestic Dogs from Europe?

The European Connection to Dog Domestication

European Paleolithic Dog Skull from Goyet Cave
A lateral view of a Palaeolithic dog from the Goyet Cave (Belgium), calibrated age of 36,000 years Before the Present. Image courtesy of Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

A significant portion of the dog domestication story comes from ancient remains recovered from European archaeological sites dated to the Upper Paleolithic period, beginning about 30,000 years ago. The specific relationship of these dogs to the process of original domestication was in doubt for some years. However, when the complete mitochondrial DNA genome for canids was published in 2013 (Thalmann et al.), those results strongly support the hypothesis that these dogs represent the original domestication event.

European Dog Sites

Over the past few years, scholars investigating new excavations and old collections from several Upper Paleolithic sites in Europe and Eurasia have continued to find canid skulls which appear to have some aspects related to domestic dogs, while still retaining some wolf-like characteristics. In some of the literature, these are referred to as European Paleolithic (EP) dogs, even though they include some in Eurasia, and they tend to date to just before the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum in Europe, ca 26,500-19,000 calendar years BP (cal BP).

The oldest dog skull discovered to date is from Goyet Cave, Belgium. The Goyet cave collections (the site was excavated in the mid-19th century) were examined recently (Germonpré and colleagues, 2009) and a fossil canid skull was discovered among them. Although there is some confusion as to which level the skull came from, it has been direct-dated by AMS at 31,700 BP.

The skull most closely represents prehistoric dogs, rather than wolves. The study examining the Goyet cave also identified what appears to be prehistoric dogs at Chauvet Cave (~26,000 bp) in France and Mezhirich in the Ukraine (ca 15,000 years BP), among others. In 2012, the same scholars (Germonpré and colleagues 2012) reported on collections from the Gravettian Predmostí cave in the Czech Republic, which contained two more EP dogs dated between 24,000-27,000 BP.

One EP dog reported in 2011 (Ovodov and colleagues) was from Razboinichya Cave, or Bandit's Cave, in the Altai mountains of Siberia. This site has problematic dates: the same excavation layer returned radiocarbon dates ranging between 15,000-50,000 years. The skull itself has elements of both wolf and dog, and, say scholars, similarities to Goyet, but its dating too is problematic, with AMS dating no more precise than "older than 20,000 years".

Dog Genome

In 2013, the complete dog genome was reported (Thalmann et al.), using complete and partial mitochondrial genomes from 18 prehistoric canids and 20 modern wolves from Eurasia and the Americas. Ancient mtDNA examples included the EP dogs of Goyet, Bonn-Oberkassel and Razboinichya Cave, as well as more recently dated sites of Cerro Lutz in Argentina, and the Koster site in the United States. Results from the ancient mtDNA were then compared to genome sequences from 49 modern wolves, 80 dogs from around the world, and four coyotes. Modern examples of dogs included many breeds, including Dingo, Basenji, and some recently published Chinese indigenous dogs.

Results from the genome study support the notion that all modern dogs derive from wolves of European origin, and that that event occurred sometime between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago.

The panel points out that the ancient mtDNA studies did not include specimens from the middle east or China, both of which have been proposed as domestication centers. However, neither of these areas have ancient remains older than 13,000 bp. Adding these data to the database might lead to the support of multiple domestication events.

Physical Changes

If the European domestication event is correct, discussion of the skulls centers on the process of domestication, whether the skulls represent "domesticated dogs", or wolves in transition to becoming dogs. Those physical changes seen in the skulls (consisting primarily of the shortening of the snout) may have been driven by changes in diet, rather than specific selection of traits by humans. That transition in diet could well have been partly due to the beginnings of a relationship between humans and dogs, although the relationship might have been as tenuous as animals following human hunters to scavenge.

Nevertheless, the transition of a wolf, clearly a dangerous carnivore that you wouldn't want anywhere near your family, into a dog who is both companion and soulmate, is without a doubt a remarkable feat in and of itself.

Sources

This article is part of the About.com Guide to the History of Animal Domestication. Also see the main Dog Domestication Page for additional information.

Germonpré M, Láznicková-Galetová M, and Sablin MV. 2012. Palaeolithic dog skulls at the Gravettian Predmostí site, the Czech Republic. Journal of Archaeological Science 39(1):184-202.

Germonpré M, Sablin MV, Stevens RE, Hedges REM, Hofreiter M, Stiller M, and Despré VR. 2009. Fossil dogs and wolves from Palaeolithic sites in Belgium, the Ukraine and Russia: osteometry, ancient DNA and stable isotopes. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(2):473-490.

Ovodov ND, Crockford SJ, Kuzmin YV, Higham TFG, Hodgins GWL, and van der Plicht J. 2011. A 33,000-Year-Old Incipient Dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the Earliest Domestication Disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum. PLoS ONE 6(7):e22821. Open Access

Pionnier-Capitan M, Bemilli C, Bodu P, Célérier G, Ferrié J-G, Fosse P, Garcià M, and Vigne J-D. 2011. New evidence for Upper Palaeolithic small domestic dogs in South-Western Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(9):2123-2140.

Thalmann O, Shapiro B, Cui P, Schuenemann VJ, Sawyer SK, Greenfield DL, Germonpré MB, Sablin MV, López-Giráldez F, Domingo-Roura X et al. . 2013. Complete mitochondrial genomes of ancient canids suggest a European origin of domestic dogs. Science 342(6160):871-874.