In 2016 we can expect to see some clear answers to the long-running controversy over when, where and how dogs appeared and from which wild animals they were first domesticated. Dog owners may blithely assume that their pets are all descended from the wild grey wolves which still roam the north. But that is unlikely to be true: dogs probably came from an ancient wolf population which has now disappeared.
Beyond that scientists cannot agree on anything much. China, Central Asia, western Europe and Siberian Russia have all been proposed as the ancestral home of the dog. Some argue that dogs were domesticated only after humans settled down as farmers, perhaps 15,000 years ago, and others that the first dogs can be seen emerging in fossils more than 35,000 years old, when when we all lived as hunter gatherers. Still, there is a good chance a consensus will emerge, thanks to a worldwide project funded by Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council which brings together archaeologists, morphologists, fossil hunters and experts in analysing ancient DNA and concludes in 2016.
The bones of ancient dogs and wolves from museums around the world are being scanned so that computers can help make judgments on whether their shape suggests dog or wolf. Ancient DNA is being extracted and sequenced, so that geneticists can look for tell-tale changes in their genetic make-up as dogs emerged as separate from wolves. With lots of data, the “when”, “where” and “from what” of dog domestication should begin to emerge in 2016. Then the fun really begins with the question: “how?”
Hunters were unlikely to look at wolves and intentionally try to domesticate them, says the project’s co-leader, Greger Larson of the University of Oxford. Hunter-gatherers could scarcely see a future friendly companion in one of their most dangerous competitors. A more likely scenario is that wolves found that following hunters and snatching scraps was a good way to make a living. Over time, wolves less aggressive to man might have prospered over their more savage cousins. Humans might have appreciated their presence too if they gave warning of predators, or even helped defend a kill.
That is all speculation now. But clues in the archaeological and fossil records could suggest answers.