Scientists discovered the remains of a dog domesticated tens of thousands of years ago inside a cave in southern Italy.
Dogs are the closest pets to humans and are one of the earliest domesticated animals, but their origin remains a mystery. Researchers from the University of Siena in Italy hope their new discovery could shed light on how dogs changed from wild predators to human companions.
One theory is that wolves can become scavengers due to a lack of food and this has brought them closer to human settlements. Another theory is that humans and wolves developed a symbiotic relationship while hunting and eventually created the first domesticated dogs.
In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, the scientists said they found fragments of dog bones dating back 14,000 to 20,000 years ago inside the Grotta Paglicci and Grotta Romanelli caves in southern Italy. The described finding is the oldest evidence of domesticated dogs in the world.
The team also found traces of ancient wild wolves inside the cave. They were larger and had distinct molars for meat that dogs did not have.
Compare the bones of domesticated dogs (smaller) and wolves found in Grotta Paglicci caves. Photo: University of Siena.
Molecular analysis has shown that the genetic separation of dogs and wolves began 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. According to Dr. Francesco Boschin, who led the part of the study, the process of human domestication of wolves has played an important part in these changes.
“We believe that in the early stages of domestication, domesticated animals are always smaller than their wild ancestors. This is true of all mammals,” Boschin said.
The members of the research team all agree that dog domestication dates back to the last Great Ice Age, when the ice sheets expanded to maximum size. During this period, the environment was in severe crisis. Humans as well as many animal populations must find warmer places to shelter, such as the Southern European peninsula, including Italy, Iberia and the Balkans.
“During times of crisis, wolves – a social predator like humans – have found a new way to survive, by eating food scraps from the settlements,” explains Boschin.
Humans could have accelerated the differentiation from wolves to domestic dogs by killing the most aggressive dogs, allowing “docile” genes to be passed on to the next generation, the team added.
The genetic profile of one of the dogs discovered in the Grotta Paglicci cave closely resembles that of the specimen found in Germany. Both date to at least 14,000 years ago.
“At that time, Europe was characterized by strong cultural fragmentation. The discovery of two genetically related domesticated dogs, one in Italy and the other in Germany, suggests they could represent a common cultural feature among groups of people, “emphasized Boschin.
New research not only reveals the origins of dog domestication, but also gives us a better understanding of the role the breed played in Old Stone communities. They can help people find food, protect settlements and even serve spiritual purposes.
The team is still analyzing the findings and hoping to provide more important information on the relationship between humans and dogs in the early stages of domestication.