The science is in: dogs first bonded with humankind in Europe. New technology allowed scientists to compare DNA from really old dogs to that of wolves, and voilà: humans domesticated wolves before the advent of agriculture, somewhere around 18,800 to 32,100 years ago. The new theory contradicts a previous one that stated that old dogs learned new tricks (i.e. domestication) in East Asia, as a different group of scientists suggested in May.
"It's these ancient wolf populations, now extinct, probably residing in Europe, that are the direct ancestors of domestic dogs," said UCLA biologist Robert Wayne. Of course, the debate is far from over. Other theories speculate, based on genetic or skeletal evidence, that dogs originated in South China or the Middle East. But the fact remains that the oldest known dog fossils come from Siberia and Western Europe.
A key part of this theory, and some others, is that dogs were formed in hunter-gatherer societies. So how did a nomadic group domesticate dogs? Scientists think that perhaps dogs initially bonded with human beings by feeding off animal carcasses left behind. (Awwww.) Eventually, studies suggest that as wolves became closer to humans, they began acting as protectors to their human friends — or maybe they even eventually aided in the hunt. Then, Wayne said, interbreeding "pump[ed] up the resemblance” between dogs and wolves.
It's not clear why it's a surprise that dogs are more closely related to ancient wolves than modern wolves, as the new study found. It makes a certain amount of sense that dogs and modern wolves evolved alongside one another, both derived from an ancient relative. (Then again, I only took one archaeology class in college, so I'm mostly going on common sense here.) Those early dogs probably had longer legs and more agile bodies than their modern-day relatives, though. Then again, this is what thousands of years of breeding gives you:
"They're very special, I think. They're clearly the oldest domesticated species," Wayne said, adding that they're also the only large carnivore human beings have managed to domesticate.
"How could we actually take something that could kill us and it becomes our best friend and lives close with us, sleeping on our beds, but in the wild these are aggressive animals that routinely take down prey larger than themselves. So that, I think it is a wonderful puzzle."
Yep: that's how ferocious wolves might've gone from attacking humans to, well, this:
Now, perhaps the real debate should be whether a thing you can put in a swing still counts as a dog.