While folklore has suggested for centuries that wolves and man can be friends, it has been a cautionary friendship. Now, however, geneticists have suggested that the relationship between man and wolf (European gray wolves, to be precise) may hold the origins of man’s modern-day best friend (the dog).
A finding in the journal Science suggests that molecular research indicates that the genomes of modern dogs are "most closely related to either ancient or modern canids of Europe," with the onset of domestication taking place some "18,800 to 32,100 years ago. Ferreting out the when and where of domestication is the tricky part, however.
Locating the source of the modern day dog
While dogs and wolves have similar appearances (in many cases), the problem lies in their mobility. According to Researcher Carlos Driscoll in the newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor: "Wolves and dogs are mobile and widespread. This makes assigning a geographic origin problematic because the ‘source’ population might not be living today where it did 10,000 years ago."
In fact, earlier research by Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology Researcher Peter Savolainen suggested (in the journal Science, too) that domestication had, in fact, occurred in the southern part of China some 15,000 years ago. According to the Christian Science Monitor, "This analysis of portions of mitochondrial DNA from modern dogs showed the greatest genetic diversity in dogs was found in the region, suggesting that dogs had emerged there first." That was 2002.
The theory held for several years, until in 2010, another researcher suggested that the Near East might be the location, not China. UCLA Professor Robert Wayne and his team believed instead that dogs likely derived from wolves matching those of Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. (This has also been suggested the same general location of the domestication of cats.)
Muddied by interbreeding
However, even Professor Wayne was forced to see that interbreeding of dogs and wolves in the Near East had provided a red herring. So it was back to the drawing board. As part of the current research team, headed by Geneticist Olaf Thalmann of the University of Turku in Finland, went back to ancient genomic roots, analyzing 18 prehistoric canids and comparing them to modern genomic sequences of modern wolves, dogs and coyotes, then creating an evolutionary tree.
It turned out that the ancient European canids "were grouped in... four clusters of modern dogs" according to the Christian Science Monitor. Supporting this data were fossils of the oldest known dogs, Stone Age relics from the areas of Belgium and Russia. According to Dr. Wayne, this alliance between wolf/dog and man occurred because of man’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle, in which dog benefited from the leftovers. Says Wayne, "Those first proto-dogs began following humans around, taking advantage of human waste." Table scraps never seemed so good.
Questions left unanswered
While there is more research to be done, and the next step is likely to be studying the nuclear data from the fossils in this study, questions remain. Because the researchers were unable to retrieve data from the Near Eastern and Chinese canid samples, the data is based solely on Eurasian and American data.
As a result, there’s still a chance that more studies will be done, and new facts will emerge. According to some, southern China is still a strong possibility for the origin of man’s modern-day best friend.