Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Dog's life

A skull found in Siberia looks like adding to the story of the dog. Dogs are descended from the grey wolf, but when and where it first began is still a developing story. The new find dates to around 33,000 years ago, and the shorter, broader muzzle resembles those of early dogs while the teeth are those of a wolf. Previously the earliest signs of domestication were about 15,000 years ago, so this pushes the date back hugely.

Once tamed, the gradual change to separate breeds - all dogs are the same species, Canis lupus, with the subspecies familiaris - happens in two ways. Initially there's an adaptation to the animal's environment.  This leads to landraces - body forms, colouration, behavioural traits and so on that become a set of distinguishing features particular to a group of a certain habitat. Then there's the human intervention - selective breeding for purpose, temperament or latterly for aesthetics. Which leads, eventually, to the strange idea that a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are exactly the same species. It lends strength to the argument of the genetic 'lumper', I think.

Most had put the origins in Eastern Asia due to the huge variety of breeds with roots there; the thinking being it will have taken longer to reach that level of diversity. Even that's not clear cut. The most primitive breeds (closest to the wolf) are from Asia (Husky, Samoyed) but interestingly another of the oldest breeds, the Basenji, comes from Africa. It isn't descended from the hunting dog, or jackal, though; it's still from the same line. Genetic mixing within world breeds seems evenly spread. So although we're sure about dogs coming from the grey wolf, we don't know exactly where those wolves were.

I'd be very surprised if canine domestication didn't start in many places at many times. The benefits or having a friendly wolf in your family/community are clear. You have a bit of help hunting, an alarm system, something to keep your feet warm. The tendency to report the earliest find as being the first incident of something is a bit of a problem. It's the first known, but to make it sound like it's the actual first is opening a can of worms that will need dealing with later. I don't remember ever having seen canned worms for sale. I suppose the market was pretty much killed when that phrase got popular. I seem to have strayed somewhat, so I'll stop.

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