Dig It: Delving into our deep love for dogs

Part 1 of a two-part series on the history of our relationship with canines

Dogs — who doesn’t love them?

A 2017 summary of pet statistics released by the Canadian Animal Health Institute indicates that 41 per cent of Canadian households have dogs and more than seven-million dogs live in our homes and share our lives.

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Until recently, we had two dogs (de facto children, really) living in our home. Thirteen years ago, I adopted one of those dogs, then a one-year-old, from the city pound.

He brought me untold amounts of joy and peace and, eventually, profound sorrow when we had to make that awful decision to say our final goodbyes as cancer and old age got the best of him.

The feelings of sadness and grief that come with the loss of a pet are seemingly universal.

It got me thinking about humans and our relationships with animals, specifically dogs.

Part of processing my loss involved researching the history of dogs and humans, an area about which I admittedly didn’t know much.

But I wasn’t at all surprised to learn there are countless articles written by archeologists who have researched the domestication of dogs and the thousands of years of history that intertwine dogs’ lives so closely with our own.

Researchers appear to agree that modern dogs are the descendants of wolves.

However, because they are archeologists, they generally don’t agree on how, where or when that happened.

Earlier theories suggesting humans captured wolf pups to raise seem to have given way to the more accepted theory that less aggressive/fearful wolves self-selected to live on the periphery of human encampments, scavenging scraps and eventually joining forces with hunting groups whose co-operation allowed for more successful hunts for both species.

Humans might be giving themselves too much credit for the domestication of dogs; evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare suggests instead that dogs domesticated themselves in one of “the more extraordinary events in human history.”

The earliest evidence of overlapping activities between humans and wolves comes from archeological sites in England (400,000 years ago), China (300,000 years ago) and France (125,000 years ago), where wolf remains are interspersed with human remains, although their association is unknown and may have been coincidental.

Additional archeological sites in Belgium, Russia and Siberia have produced dog-like remains in association with the remnants of human activities that date between 13,000 and 36,000 years ago, although it is unclear if these were dogs or dog-like wolves.

Currently, the oldest known undisputed dog comes from an archeological site in Germany, where a dog was found purposefully buried with the remains of a man and woman more than 14,000 years ago.

Recent studies have conducted genetic analysis comparing canid remains from archeological sites to modern dogs.

In 2016, after tests were conducted on mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) from modern dogs, as well as the remains of 59 ancient dogs, a hypothesis was put forward that dogs were domesticated separately in Europe and East Asia between 17,000 and 24,000 years ago.

It is thought that either the two lineages blended or, more likely, that Asian dogs from the east replaced the western European breeds within a few thousand years and eventually became the variety of breeds we share our couches with today.

A 2017 study that looked at timing and genetics, however, suggests dogs were actually domesticated just once, several millennia earlier.

While a geographic region is not proposed in this study, a complicated calibration of the rate of genomic mutation suggests dogs diverged from wolves between 39,600 and 41,500 years ago.

The study also noted the difference in European and Asian species we see subsequently occurred as a genetic split approximately 20,000 years later.

One of the problems with conducting archeological research is, of course, the finite, and often yet-undiscovered, data that we have to create and test hypotheses.

For example, the 2017 study suggesting dogs came from a single line was only able to look at the well-preserved remains of two dogs that died between 4,700 and 7,000 years ago and compared the genetic mutations between those two dogs and modern dog to come up with the calibrated genetic mutation rate.

Researchers are limited by what is available to them — and often by current scientific methods.

As new finds arise and new methods are devised, we are constantly learning more about our past world and how it relates to our present. Hence, I suspect this discussion isn’t nearly over yet.

In part two of this series, we will learn about canine history, specifically in North America.

Kim Christenson is a Kamloops archeologist. Interested in more? Go online to republicofarchaeology.ca. Dig It is KTW’s regularly published column on the history beneath our feet in the Kamloops region. A group of nine professional archeologists living and working in the area contribute columns to this page and online at kamloopsthisweek.com.

© Kamloops This Week


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