Dog History - How and Why Dogs were Domesticated

How were Dogs Domesticated?

Variation on a Dog
Variation on a Dog. Michael Blann / Getty Images

Dog history is really the history of the partnership between dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and humans. That partnership is based on a human need for help with herding and hunting, for an early alarm system, and for a source of food in addition to the companionship many of us today know and love. Dogs get companionship, protection and shelter, and a reliable food source out of the deal. But when this partnership first occurred is still under some controversy.

Dog history has been studied recently using mitochondrial DNA, which suggests that wolves and dogs split into different species around 100,000 years ago: but whether humans had anything to do with that, no one really knows. Recent mtDNA analysis (Boyko et al.), suggests that the origin and location of dog domestication, long thought to be in east Asia, is in some doubt. A recent study led by Robert Wayne (vonHoldt et al. 2010) reported that dogs appear to have a higher proportion of wolf haplotypes from grey wolves native to the Middle East. That suggests, contrary to earlier studies, that the middle east was the original location of domestication. What also showed up in this report was evidence for either a second Asian domestication or a later admixture with Chinese wolves.

European Paleolithic Dogs

Part of the puzzle of the domestication of dogs lies in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe, beginning perhaps as long ago as 30,000 years.

Recent genome research (Thalmann et al. 2013) reports strong evidence that European Paleolithic dogs do represent a domestication event.

A burial site in Germany called Bonn-Oberkassel has joint human and dog interments dated to 14,000 years ago. The earliest "nobody-argues-about-it" domesticated dog was found in China at the early Neolithic (7000-5800 BC) Jiahu site in Henan Province.

Upper Paleolithic sites in Europe with evidence for dog interaction with humans include Goyet Cave in Belgium, Chauvet cave in France, and Predmosti in Czech Republic,  European Mesolithic sites like Skateholm (5250-3700 BC) in Sweden have dog burials, proving the value of the furry beasts to hunter-gatherer settlements. Danger Cave in Utah is currently the earliest case of dog burial in the Americas, at about 11,000 years ago.

Two Domestications?

In 2016, a research team led by bioarchaeologist Greger Larson (Frantz et al.) published mitochondrial DNA evidence for two places of origin for domestic dogs: one in Eastern Eurasia and one in Western Eurasia. According to the analysis, ancient Asian dogs originated from a domestication event from Asian wolves (at least 12,500 years ago); while European Paleolithic dogs originated from an independent domestication event from European wolves (at least 15,000 years ago). Then, says the report, at sometime before the Neolithic period (at least 6,400 years ago), Asian dogs were transported by humans to Europe where they displaced European Paleolithic dogs.

That explains why earlier DNA studies reported that all dogs were descended from one domestication event, but scholars found evidence of that event from two far-flung locations.

There were two populations of dogs in the Paleolithic, goes the hypothesis, but one of them--the European Paleolithic dog--is now extinct. A lot of questions remain: there are no ancient American dogs included in these data, and Frantz et al. suggest that the two progenitor species were descended from the same initial wolf population and both are now extinct.

It will be interesting to see what the American dogs tell us--but in the meantime, the research is part of a growing body of evidence suggesting pre-Neolithic contact between Europe and Asia, most recently in discussions of barley's multiple origins. It seems clear that our post-Ice Age ancestors were long-distance wanderers.

Dogs as Persons

A reanalysis (Losey and colleagues 2011) of dog burials dated to the Late Mesolithic-Early Neolithic Kitoi period in the Cis-Baikal region of Siberia suggests that in some cases, dogs were awarded "person-hood" and treated equal to fellow humans.

A dog burial at the Shamanaka site was of a male, middle-aged dog (probably a husky) which had suffered injuries to its spine, injuries from which it recovered. The burial, radiocarbon dated to ~6200 years ago (cal BP), was interred in a formal cemetery, and in a similar manner to the humans within that cemetery. Losey and colleagues believe the dog may have lived with its human family at Shamanaka.

A wolf burial at the Lokomotiv-Raisovet cemetery (~7300 cal BP) was also an older adult male. The wolf's diet (from stable isotope analysis) was ungulates, and although its teeth were worn, there is no direct evidence that this wolf was part of the community. Nevertheless, it too was buried in a formal cemetery.

These burials are exceptions, but not that rare: there are others, but there is also is evidence that people of the Kitoi culture (late Mesolithic fisher-hunters in Baikal) consumed dogs and wolves, as their burned and fragmented bones appear in refuse pits. Losey and associates suggest that these are indications that Kitoi hunter-gatherers considered that at least these individual dogs were "persons".

Modern Breeds and Ancient Origins

Evidence for the appearance of breed variation is found in several European Upper Paleolithic sites. Medium-sized dogs (with wither heights between 45-60 cm) have been identified in Natufian sites in the Near East (Tell Mureybet in Syria, Hayonim Terrace and Ein Mallaha in Israel, and Pelagawra Cave in Iraq) dated to ~15,500-11,000 cal BP). Medium to large dogs (wither heights above 60 cm) have been identified in Germany (Kniegrotte), Russia (Eliseevichi I) and Ukraine (Mezin), ~17,000-13,000 cal BP).

Small dogs (wither heights under 45 cm) have been identified in Germany (Oberkassel, Teufelsbrucke and Oelknitz), Switzerland (Hauterive-Champreveyres), France (Saint-Thibaud-de-Couz, Pont d'Ambon) and Spain (Erralia) between ~15,000-12,300 cal BP. See Pionnier-Capitan et al for more information.

A recent study of pieces of DNA called SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphism) which have been identified as markers for modern dog breeds published in 2012 (Larson et al) comes to some surprising conclusions: that despite the clear evidence for marked size differentiation in very early dogs (e.g., small, medium and large dogs found at Svaerdborg), this has nothing to do with current dog breeds. The oldest modern dog breeds are no more than 500 years old, and most date only from ~150 years ago.

Theories of Modern Breed Origination

The theory argues that since domestication occurred while humans were all hunter-gatherers at the time and thus led extensively migrant lifeways, dogs spread with them, and thus these dog populations developed in geographic isolation for a time.

Eventually, however, human population growth and trade networks meant people reconnected, and that, say scholars, led to admixture in the dog population. When dog breeds began to be developed about 500 years ago, they were created out of a fairly homogenous gene pool, from dogs with mixed genetic heritages which had been developed in widely disparate locations.

Since the creation of kennel clubs, breeding has been selective: but even that was disrupted by World Wars I and II, when breeding populations all over the world were decimated or went extinct: dog breeders have reestablished such breeds using a handful of individuals or combining similar breeds.


Thanks to researchers Bonnie Shirley and Jeremiah Degenhardt for fruitful discussions about dogs and dog history. This article is part of the Guide to the History of Animal Domestication.

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