Dogs and humans have been sharing quarters for the past several thousand years or so. (The exact figure is under considerable debate.) Dogs actually predate civilization. Brought together by a mutual need for food and protection, early man discovered that hunting was made easier with wolves, and having an active alarm system during a time when predatory dangers abound is a considerable advantage. Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated. In a process called selective breeding, the tamer wolf pups were kept, trained and bred, while the shyer wolves were driven away. Interestingly, while the more aggressive wolves were being culled, so were the people who did not like wolves. People who did not keep wolves lost the evolutionary advantage of having a hunter and protector. Their genes did not get passed on. This may be why dogs are popular in every single culture on earth.
In the 19th century excavators in Belgium found a skull of a dog dated to about 31,700 years ago. This skull had a shorter muzzle than wolves from the same time period. The second oldest skeleton wasn’t found until 14,000 years ago in Russia. It is uncertain whether or not dogs were a regular part of life and how much of a role they payed in the interim. What we do know for certain is that by 10,000 years ago, dogs were deeply entwined with human life in China and Africa.
In 2009, The Royal Institute of Stockholm (led by Peter Savolainen) published an analysis of the mitochondrial DNA of 1,500 dogs scattered across the Old World.
According to Savolainen,
“We found that dogs were first domesticated at a single event, sometime less than 16,300 years ago, south of the Yangtze River.” he believes that all dogs came from a population of 51 female wolves. The timing of the domestication of early wolves coincides with the origin of rice agriculture. It is possible, but not definitive, that early farmers or sedentary hunter/gatherers were the first to domesticate the wolf.
Complicating matters, is Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, who showed in 2010, that the DNA of the domestic dog most closely resembles that of the Near Eastern wolf. Wayne believes that dogs were first domesticated in the Middle East.
The discrepancies may suggest that domestication was not a single event, but rather that it happened in multiple locations at different times. Sisan Crockford, archeozoologist at the University of Victoria has evidence that there was a “separate origin of North American dogs, distinct from a Middle Eastern origin”.
Regardless of when how or why they came to be domesticated, there is no doubt that they played many roles in every culture on earth.
As wolves continued to be bred, they began to change in physical characteristics. Their fur changed, their teeth changed and they lost strength in their jaws, the ears of some breeds became less erect and they began to change sizes. By the Bronze Age there were five distinct breeds: Mastiffs, wolf dogs, Greyhounds, pointing dogs and shepherding dogs. By the Greek and Roman empires their duties had expanded from hunters, herders and guardians to pets.
Archeologists in 2006 found the preserved remains of about 80 dogs among the 2000 people buried in an ancient cemetery near the city of Ilo, Peru. Each dog had his own grave near his owner and almost all of them died of natural causes. Some were buried in fine linen blankets and many were buried next to fish and llama bones. (Presumably as a snack for the afterlife.) These dogs were pets but it is also likely that they were used for herding llamas and alpacas.
In 1902, archeologists have also uncovered the mummy of a small dog dating back to the 4th century B.C., in the city of Abydos. The dog died around the age of two, and had the build of a Jack Russell Terrier. Salima Ikram of American University in Cairo, believes that the dog went into mourning after his owner passed and died shortly after. “There are much earlier Middle Kingdom tombs that depict a man and his dog, and both are named so that they can survive into the afterworld together.”
Throughout history, there have been countless dog burials excavated, many of them have been found next to their people. This underscores the deep bond that people and animals share. Not only do the animals go on into the afterlife with their people, but many are also given elaborate burials. This indicates that the ancient people believed that the animals souls lived on, the same as a humans. Animals and ancient people shared much, including spirituality.
It is not uncommon to see the role that animals play in religion. The Vedic hymns in India assume an encounter with dogs in the afterlife, Cerberus guards the entrance to Hell in Greek and Roman mythology, and the Aztecs believe that the dead enter the afterlife grasping the tail of Xolotl, the dog god. Similarly, in the American Southwest, the Native Americans believed that dogs would escort the recently departed into the afterlife.
The ancient peoples recognized a spirituality about dogs than many modern people miss. According to a Gallup poll, 80% of Americans believe that they will go to Heaven when they die, but only 43% believe that animals will go to Heaven with them. Does this mean that somewhere along the lines humans lost their spirituality? Or that dogs did? That discussion is best left for a different website.
As the centuries and cultures marched on, dogs began to take on many shapes and forms. From the diminutive chihuahua to the mighty Cane Corso, all share the same DNA. UCLA Canid Biologist and Moleculer geneticist Robert Wayne has traced dogs directly to the grey wolf. An act that has led to their reclassification in 1993 from canis familiaris to canis lupus familiaris. This is why, theoretically a Dachshund could breed with an Irish Wolfhound or even a Grey Wolf and their offspring would turn out viable.
Dogs have worked for humans for thousands of years, but their jobs have changed over time. Dogs went from Hunting and herding to Police and disability assistance dogs. Dogs have worked on farms, in airports, in the military, in search and rescue. Dogs have been used to sniff out mold or mildew, and in swanky hotels, dogs have been employed to sniff out bed bugs. Throughout the world, in Industrial cities and farming communities, there are dogs who live the same today as they have 15,000 years ago.
Time may march on, but dogs and people share a bond that can not be easily broken.