Dogs have been considered man’s best friend for thousands of years. In fact, experts believe that they were the first animal species ever to be domesticated (tamed so that it can live with or be used by humans). Scientists also know that dogs originated (came) from gray wolves. But in which part of the world did this domestication first occur? A new study provides a possible answer.
This study, led by scientists at Cornell University, examined the DNA of 4,500 dogs from 38 countries. DNA is a molecule that carries the genetic code that gives living things their special characteristics. Based on their research, the scientists believe that our furry friends first appeared some 15,000 years ago in what is now Central Asia, perhaps near present-day Nepal or Mongolia.
FROM WOLVES TO BEST FRIENDS
How did the domestication take place? Scientists think that Paleolithic hunters, or prehistoric men, probably did not domesticate wolves. Instead, they believe that wolves domesticated themselves. The animals did this when they figured out that scavenging for food from humans was easier than hunting their own prey.
“The tamer wolves became more successful, and over time, this led to the first dogs,” Adam Boyko, one of the scientists involved in the study, told Scholastic News Online. “Once they were tame, people started using them as guard dogs, hunting dogs, pack and/or sled animals, and companions, and the rest, as they say, was history.”
THE DNA STUDY
Most of the 1 billion dogs alive today are not the purebred or mixed-breed dogs that people keep as pets. Most dogs belong to a group called village dogs. Village dogs are wild scavengers that roam free near humans.
Genetic studies of dogs have mostly focused on purebred pooches. But for this study, Boyko and his team decided to look at the DNA of both purebred and village dogs. Village dogs, they believe, are a great source of DNA data. That’s because people purposefully breed, and crossbreed, purebred dogs. But humans have not tinkered with village dogs, so their genes can tell us more about what dogs were like before they were domesticated.
Boyco’s team found differences in the DNA of the village dogs that led to their conclusion of where dogs came from. “In these village dog populations, we find a center of diversity in Central Asia that points to that being the birthplace of dogs,” Boyko says. Put another way, Boyko’s team believes that the first dogs lived in this area because the researchers found greater genetic differences among dogs there than anywhere else in the world. Over thousands of years, they suspect, smaller populations of these dogs moved away and settled in other places. Their offspring have more genetic similarities with one another than dogs in Central Asia.
Not all experts agree with the study’s findings, however. Other scientific studies suggest that canine (dog) domestication may have begun in the Middle East, Europe, or southern China. While Boyko and his team members disagree with those theories, they acknowledge that more research is needed. “Further work . . . is vital for building an improved understanding of dog evolutionary history,” the scientists noted in their study.