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The First Domesticated Dogs?

By Amy Fernandez

Over the past 20 years our knowledge of the canine species has exceeded all of the cumulative information amassed in the previous two centuries. Researchers have improved tools and protocols, along with far more efficient ways to glean significant facts from the resultant mountain of data. There are plenty of reasons for this, but global warming doesn’t usually come to mind. Aside from the vitriolic debates surrounding that issue, the fact remains that warmer weather is revealing some pretty amazing fossil treasures.

The equally contentious international efforts to ban the ivory trade also played a role in one of the biggest discoveries about man’s best friend.  Rare woolly mammoth tusks can still be sold and their skyrocketing value in China has prompted plenty of industrious exploration in formerly inaccessible regions of ancient mammoth territory.

That’s why Siberian locals were poking around a riverbank in the melting permafrost back in 2011 when brothers Yury and Igor Gorokhov uncovered a perfectly preserved fossilized puppy.  Not a mammoth tusk, but they realized it was important. So they notified their local expert Sergei Fyodorov, Director of the Yakutsk Mammoth Museum, (a mammoth museum…who knew?). Situated near the Arctic Ocean about 3000 miles from Moscow, this northeastern outpost of Siberia is best-known as the world’s coldest city, which sort of explains the puppy’s amazing state of preservation.

Dubbed ‘Tumat Dog’ after nearby Tumat Village, it turned out to be a three-month-old female pup that died 12,450 years ago. The scientific grapevine was buzzing, but it’s still Siberia. Fyodorov finally returned for another look last year and, lo and behold, there was another one buried in the mud about 20 feet away.  This was a male, imaginatively named ‘Tumat Puppy’ and it was in even better condition, estimated to be 70-80 percent intact. In recent years melting permafrost has revealed an avalanche of prehistoric relics of every shape and size. However, these pups are the first perfectly intact mammal relics ever discovered. Their similarities and proximity to each other suggests that they were littermates that died in a mudslide.  Even more interesting, it appears that they were somebody’s pets. Stone tools, arrowheads and other artifacts found in and around this dig confirm that it was an early human settlement.

Although we know that dogs descended from wolves, there are still plenty of questions about exactly where and when they first became domesticated. Accurately distinguishing primitive dogs from dog/wolf hybrids was tricky business prior to the advent of genomic reconstruction. And genetic analysis has definitively identified these Pleistocene pups as 100 percent dog.

To date, at least seven archeological sites have revealed evidence of early canine domestication, suggesting the remarkable possibility of multiple domestication events. From the perspective of human evolution, this is especially interesting because the human/canine partnership preceded other domestication events by several thousand years. In other words, humans and dogs teamed up long before the first agricultural settlements arose. These pups may help to resolve some of the mysteries about that unprecedented relationship between rival predatory species at the top of the ice age food chain.

Evolutionary biologists have also suggested the tantalizing possibility of identifying the founding bloodline when Canis familiaris branched off from Canis lupus. There’s plenty to learn from this discovery. An international team of scientists, including specialists from Belgium, Canada, Japan and Germany are currently working on it. So stay tuned for updates.

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Posted by on Aug 30 2020. Filed under Current Articles, Dog Show History, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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  • September 2021