The debate continues today. What we do know is approximately 80 percent of dog breeds are modern breeds that have evolved in the last few hundred years, but some dog breeds have ancient histories that go back thousands of years.
For years experts have been ‘dogged’ by the question: ‘Where do dogs come from?”. As it turns out no-one actually knows the answer. What scientists have discovered is that dogs were the very first creatures domesticated by man. Their fossils have been found buried alongside humans, and DNA studies indicate that these remains are over 32 000 years old.
The first dog-like fossils are thought to have come from Europe; however DNA studies have brought to light that older fossils have been discovered in the Middle East and Asia.
Scientists do generally agree that dogs originated from wolves. Their wolf ancestors slowly became domesticated as they associated with people. Perhaps drawn to areas occupied by humans because of food and carcasses left over by hunters, wolves became tamer and scientists believe that this led to people using them for hunting and guard duty. Over a long period of time wolves evolved into domesticated dogs.
In order to establish these facts expert researchers gathered DNA and fossils from 20 wolf-like creatures from over 36 000 years ago. They then compared the genetic material of these remains to a wide array of modern dog breeds – including the cocker spaniel, basenji and golden retriever. The results showed similarities between the ancient specimens and the modern genetic material.
HOW DID WOLVES BECOME DOGS?
In modern times we have such a wide array of dog breeds – from the tiny Chihuahua to the massive Great Dane. It is somewhat difficult to believe that all of these dogs came from wolves.
Mark Derr, author of a new book titled ‘How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends’, was asked this question when appearing on a radio interview. “Since dogs are smaller than wolves and have more varying proportions, coat colors, and other features, how could this association of wolves with humans lead to these physical changes?”
Derr replied, “Well, what happened was that you had populations of dog-wolves that became isolated from the greater wolf population and in doing so, they began to breed more closely—to inbreed as it were. And when you inbreed, you get genetic peculiarities that arise, and those peculiarities then begin to become part of the population…. In other words, a mutation will appear in a small population. If I don’t want it, what I do is kill the animals so that they don’t reproduce. If I do want it, I try to get them to reproduce.”
So, according to Derr, a certain peculiarity—for example, a curly tail—first arises by mutation. This mutation and its resulting trait are supposedly then concentrated into a distinct dog lineage by breeding the dogs that have it.