The debate over when wolves, the ancestors of modern dogs, were first domesticated by man has raged for decades, with modern thought suggesting that wolves were first tamed by ancient hunter gatherers around 15,000 years ago in Eastern Asia.
However, fresh research is set to challenged that view, with DNA analysis suggesting that humans and dogs bonded in Ice Age Europe between 19,000 and 30,000 years ago.
The study took DNA from domestic dogs and looked to establish which population of wolves, both modern and ancient, presented the closest match.
The results found that European Ice Age wolves provided the best match, with the analysis offering little similarity with wolves, coyotes and dingos from other parts of the world.
Ice Age wolves are the ancestors of modern dogs
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Early tamed wolves may have been trained as hunting dogs or even protected their human masters from predators, the researchers believe. The Finnish and German team wrote in the journal Science: "Conceivably, proto-dogs might have taken advantage of carcasses left on site by early hunters, assisted in the capture of prey, or provided defence from large competing predators at kills."
Dog domestication of a "large and dangerous carnivore" was likely to have occurred partly by accident, possibly after wolves were attracted to hunter camp sites by the smell of fresh meat. The research contradicts previous thinking that early farming brought wolves sniffing around villages, leading to them forming relationships with humans.
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"Dogs were our companions long before we kept goats, sheep or cattle," said Professor Johannes Krause, one of the researchers from Tubingen University in Germany. The scientists analysed a particular type of DNA found in mitochondria, tiny power stations within cells that generate energy.
Unlike nuclear DNA found in the hearts of cells, mitochondrial DNA is only inherited from mothers. This makes it a powerful tool in tracing ancestry. The study included genetic data on 18 prehistoric wolves and other dog-like animals, as well as 77 dogs and 49 wolves from the present day.
Among the prehistoric remains were two sets of German dog fossils, one from a 14,700-year-old human burial site near Bonn, and the other dating back 12,500 years from a cave near Mechernich. Most of the DNA from modern dogs was traceable to just one lineage, closely related to that of a wolf skeleton found in a cave in northern Switzerland.
"I was amazed how clearly they showed that all dogs living today go back to four genetic lineages, all of which originate in Europe," said study leader Olaf Thalmann, from the University of Turku in Finland.