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Durham University News

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Search for the first ‘man’s best friend’

(11 February 2013)

A Saluki dog, which features as part of the team's research. Image courtesy of Keith Dobney

Scientists at Durham University hope to find out when and where dogs first became man’s best friend by examining DNA and bones from ancient remains – of wolves as well as dogs.

The earliest conclusive evidence for domestic dogs is about 14,000 years ago, but some theories suggest dogs could have been domesticated as long as 35,000 years ago.

Arguments persist regarding where the process first began. Some researchers insist dogs were domesticated just once in East Asia – and spread from there – while others suggest the practice happened in a variety of different areas and at different times.

The project, funded by a major grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), will enable researchers from Durham University and the University of Aberdeen to apply cutting-edge techniques to examine the DNA, bones and teeth of dog remains found across Asia and Europe.

Lead researcher Dr Greger Larson, a Reader and ancient DNA expert in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, said: “It is remarkable that despite the fact we have a good feel for the times and places of when cows, sheep, goats, and pigs were domesticated, we still don’t have the first clue about dogs. Using a combination of state-of-the-art techniques we hope to change that.”

Professor Keith Dobney, Sixth Century Chair of Human Palaeoecology at the University of Aberdeen, said: “Just about everything associated with domestication is really about the beginnings of farming. Except dogs.

“Dogs were domesticated by hunter-gatherers at least 3,000-5,000 years before agriculture and possibly tens of thousands of years earlier.

Researchers will employ new techniques to study the genetics and shapes of ancient bones and teeth to gain insights into how domestication affected the dogs biologically, and also to chart how domesticated dogs moved across the globe.

Another key finding is likely to be whether dogs were domesticated just once in one particular location and spread from there – or if the process happened a number of times in various different places across the Old World.

Dr Larson added: “Remains as old as 15,000 years have been found in several sites across Europe and Asia, suggesting dogs were either domesticated independently on several occasions across the Old World, or domesticated just once and subsequently spread with late Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

“There are also those who suggest that wolves were involved in an earlier, failed domestication experiment by Ice-Age Palaeolithic hunters about 32,000 years ago.”

The three year project gets underway in October and is backed by a £950,000 grant from the NERC – one of only a few handful of grants awarded to archaeological science.

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