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Ancient DNA Reveals Dogs Were First Domesticated in Europe

Update Date: Nov 15, 2013 10:52 PM EST

A new study on prehistoric DNA of dogs suggests that our canine-loving friends were first domesticated in Europe. The new research, based on a genetic analysis of ancient and modern dog and wolf samples, points to a European origin at least 18,000 years ago.

The focus on ancient DNA provides "a new perspective on dog origins," Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, said in a Science interview.

"We found that instead of recent wolves being closest to domestic dogs, ancient European wolves were directly related to them," Wayne, the senior author of the research, said in a statement. "This brings the genetic record into agreement with the archaeological record. Europe is where the oldest dogs are found."

For the study in Science, the researchers studied 10 ancient "wolf-like" animals and eight "dog-like" animals, mostly from Europe. These animals were all more than 1,000 years old, most were thousands of years old, and two were more than 30,000 years old. The researchers also analyzed samples from 77 modern-day dogs, 49 wolves and four coyotes. Then they grouped together the DNA signatures into an evolutionary tree diagram.

The researchers compared genetic sequences from a wide range of ancient animals - both dogs and wolves - with material taken from living canines - again, from both dogs and wolves.

This analysis show that modern dogs are most similar to ancient European wolves or dogs - not to any of the wolf groups from outside Europe, nor even to modern European wolves (suggesting the link is with old European wolves that are now extinct).

"The wolf is the first domesticated species and the only large carnivore humans ever domesticated," Wayne said. "This always seemed odd to me. Other wild species were domesticated in association with the development of agriculture and then needed to exist in close proximity to humans. This would be a difficult position for a large, aggressive predator. But if domestication occurred in association with hunter-gatherers, one can imagine wolves first taking advantage of the carcasses that humans left behind - a natural role for any large carnivore - and then over time moving more closely into the human niche through a co-evolutionary process." 

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