A man and his dog A man and his dog A man and his dog (Photo: Oneinchpunch/Shutterstock)

Man's best friendship at least 14,000 years old

Some say domesticated dogs have been around even longer.

Humans and dogs have had a special relationship for so long that it’s difficult to imagine a time when dogs weren’t living alongside us as pets, hunting companions, co-workers or family members.

Lap dogs were popular with European nobility in medieval times, and in ancient Egypt, dogs belonging to royalty were sometimes interred along with their owners so that when a ruler died, his dog could protect him in the afterlife.

boy with his hound dog Donald Davis with his hound dog, Bell, in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1957.
(Photo: State Archives of Florida/Florida Memory)

“Early on in our relationship, dogs found a role within society,” says this National Geographic video on working dogs. Today, “they play diverse roles as livestock herders, rescuers, sled pullers and even work to brighten the lives of the elderly and disabled.”

Paleontologists have determined that the first true dogs – as distinct from wolves – came into being about 30 million to 40 million years ago. But exactly when we humans started domesticating dogs is unclear – and how we should figure it out is the subject of debate. Some scientists think genetic testing is the key, while others find the fossil record the most reliable indicator of domesticity.

For the earliest known fossil evidence of dog domestication, we can look to archeological dig sites in Israel and Germany.

The Israeli site, called Ain Mallaha or Eynan, was a settlement of the Natufian culture inhabited from 10,000 to 8200 B.C. The Natufians were the first eastern Mediterranean culture to establish permanent villages as opposed to nomads who hunt and forage for food in different areas based on seasonal availability.

On a dig in Eynan in 1978, Simon J.M. Davis and Francois Valla found evidence dating back 12,000 years that a puppy had been buried with a human. “The finding of a puppy skeleton in such close association with man is of particular significance as an indication of a close relationship between man and dog,” they wrote in the article abstract for Nature.

archaeologist at grave site from the Natufian period in northern IsraelAn archaeologist photographs the grave of a she-shaman from the Natufian period, some 12,000 years old, in northern Israel. (Photo by Naftali Hilger/Hebrew University via Getty Images)

Dogs were also found buried along with people at the Bonn-Oberkassel site in Germany. Taken together, the Israeli and German sites would seem to indicate that dogs have been living alongside humans for around 14,000 years.

However, if we look at genetics instead of fossils, it’s possible that humans and dogs have been friends even longer than that. The Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Some genetic studies suggest that wolves were domesticated 16,300 years ago to serve as livestock in China. Another genetic study, however, suggests that dog domestication began as early as 18,800-32,100 years ago in Europe.”

In a recent study, researchers compared the genomes of gray wolves from China, Croatia and Israel to dogs from Africa and Australia. The results suggested that dogs may have been domesticated as far back as 34,000 years ago, and that modern dogs and wolves descended in parallel “from an older, common ancestor.”

One thing’s for certain: tracking the history of our relationship with dogs continues to fascinate humans and likely will for many years to come.

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