Undisputed dog

Dogs diverged genetically from wolves between 20 and 40 millennia ago. But the first specimen that is indisputably a dog was found in a German quarry and dates back 14,200 years.


The origins of the dog are a difficult tangle. Contrary to popular belief, dogs are not descended from modern wolves. Modern dogs and modern wolves share a common ancestor, of course, but the precursor to the dog is an extinct sub-species of wolf quite different from the wolves alive today. (Wolves and dogs have shared some genes since then as the result of post-domestication interbreeding.) Dating the divergence between the two is difficult, mainly because it happened extremely recently in evolutionary terms. The current thinking is a genetic divergence between 20 and 40 thousand years ago.

It gets messier. This is the timeline for genetic divergence of wolves and dogs, but this is just the upper limit for domestication. It’s possible (indeed likely) that proto-dogs were wandering around for thousands of years before teaming up with humans. And even when domestication did occur, the change to modern dog would have happened gradually over time as wolf-like characteristics disappeared and dog-like characteristics emerged. The picture above, for example, is from a cave painting in Font-de-Gaume, France, dating back about 19,000 years.

Given all this, how do you define the first dog? It needs to be genetically related to modern dogs, of course, but you would also need evidence that it lived and worked alongside humans. So far, our best candidate is the Bonn-Oberkassel dog.

The remains of the Bonn-Oberkassel dog were found in a basalt quarry near the banks of the Rhine in Germany. The remains date back about 14,200 years. Genetically, it’s a dog. But it was found buried alongside two people: a 40-something man and a 20-something woman. All three were covered in powdered red hematite (which suggests a ceremonial burial to me) and covered by a basalt slab. The dog was young, less than half a year old, and had been quite sick while alive. So sick, in fact, that it would have needed proper care by humans to have survived that long at all. All these factors – the proximity of the burial, the ceremonial treatment of all the bodies, and the evidence of prolonged care and attention – suggest one thing: this was a dog. Pre-history’s very first undisputed dog.

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