Man’s Best Friend or First Pet? The Surprising History of Dog Domestication

Introduction

The history of domesticated animals remains a fascinating area of research and one still subject to new discoveries. Archaeologists and anthropologists continue to uncover evidence providing clues into early human-animal relationships and when various species like dogs, goats, pigs, and cattle were first domesticated.

Determining the first domesticated animal species is challenging. The definition of domestication, quality of archaeological evidence, and evolution of human-animal bonds over thousands of years make definitive conclusions elusive. However, recent DNA analysis and archaeological finds provide new insight into potential early domestication of species like dogs.

This article will explore evidence surrounding the first domesticated animals, key theories, and examine if dogs were potentially among or even the earliest species domesticated by humans.

Early Canine Domestication

archaeological dog remains showing signs of early domestication

The earliest evidence of dog domestication comes from archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia, dating to around 12,000-14,000 years ago. In 2021, archaeologists uncovered dog bones at AlUla site that showed signs of being deliberately buried – an indication of an emotional attachment between humans and dogs (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/04/210408131427.htm). The bones had signs of being on a leash, with dislocated hips and other skeletal damage. This suggests early dogs helped humans hunt and herd in exchange for food and shelter, marking the beginning of domestication.

Similarly, excavations in the northwest region of Saudi Arabia in 2021 uncovered dog remains over 9,000 years old that showed signs of domestication, including a shorter muzzle and crowded teeth compared to wolves (https://www.prnewswire.com/in/news-releases/in-alula-archaeologists-uncover-earliest-evidence-of-a-domesticated-dog-in-arabia-857760077.html). This provides early conclusive evidence of humans taming wild canines in the region.

Other Early Domesticates

In addition to dogs, other animals were domesticated in the early days of human civilization. Sheep were first domesticated around 11,000-9,000 BC, followed by goats at 10,000 BC according to History RQ: Lession 3 – Sec 2-3 Flashcards. Pigs were domesticated around 9,000 BC, and cattle became domesticated around 8,000-6,000 BC.

Evidence shows that sheep and goats were among the earliest domesticated species, in the same general timeframe as early dog domestication. Cattle and pigs followed soon after as humans transitioned to agricultural societies. Goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle all provided early humans with food, materials like wool and leather, and abilities like pulling plows and carts. So while dogs were likely the first domesticated animal, other species were domesticated soon after during the Neolithic period.

Defining Domestication

Domestication refers to the long-term genetic modification of a species through selective breeding to accentuate traits that benefit humans. According to a 1999 study by Zeder, there are several criteria that indicate domestication of a species:

  • Habituation – loss of flight response to humans
  • Appearance changes – piebald coat, floppy ears, skeletal morphology changes
  • Reproductive changes – neoteny (retention of juvenile behavior)
  • Behavioral changes – reduced aggression, ability to be trained
  • Dependence on humans for food, shelter

These changes occur gradually over generations through selective pressures placed on the species by humans. As humans breed only those animals exhibiting preferred traits, adaptations emerge that allow the species to thrive in a human environment. This distinguishes domestication from mere taming of individual wild animals. True domestication induces lasting genetic changes throughout the population (Crabtree, 1993).

Earliest Conclusive Evidence

sheep among the earliest domesticated livestock species

Archaeological evidence suggests that sheep were likely the earliest domesticated livestock species. Remains of domesticated sheep dating back to around 11,000-9,000 BC have been found in Mesopotamia, which is modern day Iraq and Syria (Vigne 2011). Goats were domesticated around the same time as sheep, with evidence dating back to 10,000-9,000 BC in Zagros mountains of Iran (Zeder 2008).

Cattle were domesticated slightly later, with remains dating to around 10,500-10,000 BC found in sites in Anatolia and the Levant (Cucchi et al. 2021). Evidence suggests pigs were domesticated in China and Anatolia around 8,500 BC.

Indirect Evidence

Earlier evidence suggesting potential early animal domestication came from archaeological sites like Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, which dates back over 9,000 years. While no direct evidence of domesticated animals was found at Çatalhöyük, the site revealed human-animal interaction through analysis of faunal remains, human burials with animal parts, and artwork depicting animals (Flad, 2007).

Another example is the 12,000 year old site of Ein Mallaha in Israel. The faunal assemblage showed an abundance of gazelle remains, hinting at possible management or husbandry. However, the evidence is inconclusive about true domestication. As Crombé notes, “earlier claims for dog domestication at Ein Mallaha must be dismissed.”

While sites like these provide clues about human-animal relationships in the past, the evidence is speculative and does not definitively prove domestication. As Crombé concludes, “It is essential to complement indirect evidence… with direct evidence in order to identify early domestication.”

DNA Evidence

DNA analyses have provided critical insights into early animal domestication. By sequencing and comparing the genomes of domestic animals and their wild ancestors, researchers can identify genetic changes associated with domestication. Key findings include:

Analyses of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in dogs, cattle, pigs, and chickens reveal that all modern domestic breeds descend from a limited number of maternal lineages, indicating domestication bottlenecks. This supports the idea that domestication occurred just a few times in each species’ history (McHugo et al. 2019).

Studies of Y chromosome DNA and whole genomes also show reduced diversity in domestic animals compared to wild ancestors, further evidence of domestication bottlenecks (Hunter 2018).

Analyses of ancient DNA from archaeological sites allow researchers to directly study early domestication events. For example, an influential 2020 study sequenced DNA from 101 ancient Near Eastern dogs, demonstrating that dog domestication occurred between 11,000-12,000 years ago (Ahmad et al. 2020).

Ongoing advances in ancient DNA sequencing continue to reveal new details about where, when, and how humankind first domesticated wild animals.

Domestication Theories

There are several leading theories that aim to explain how and why the process of animal domestication occurred in early human history.

theories on pathways to animal domestication by humans

One major theory is the ‘commensal pathway’ which proposes that domestication began when wild animals such as wolves started scavenging around human camps for food scraps. Over time, the less fearful animals adapted to living in close proximity with humans. Humans then started providing food rewards to encourage the presence of these animals, eventually gaining more control over their breeding and behavior. This theory is supported by evidence of scavenging behavior in multiple domesticated species (Source).

Another influential theory is the ‘prey pathway’, which suggests humans actively hunted and captured the young of wild prey species like boar and aurochs to raise them for meat. This constant supply of captured animals led to unconscious selection of traits like docility. There is some archeological evidence of penning and corralling of young ungulates during early domestication (Source).

In general, most theories agree domestication occurred through a combination of human-driven selection for desired traits like tameness, as well as natural selection for animals capable of thriving in human-dominated environments.

First Domesticated Species

Based on archaeological evidence and DNA analysis, dogs were likely the first animal species to be domesticated by humans. The domestication of dogs occurred at least 15,000 years ago, though estimates range up to 40,000 years ago (Freedman and Wayne, 2017). The earliest definitive evidence of dog domestication comes from a 14,000 year old fossil of a domesticated dog found in Germany, though there is earlier indirect evidence from dog burials and rock art depicting dogs dating back over 30,000 years (Springer, 2020).

Genetic studies indicate that dogs diverged from wolves sometime between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, suggesting domestication occurred during this timeframe. However, the precise origins of dog domestication remain debated, with competing theories arguing domestication began in Europe, Central Asia, South Asia or multiple locations independently (AgWeb, 2023). Regardless, dogs were certainly the first animal species intentionally domesticated by humans, predating the domestication of goats, sheep, pigs and cattle by thousands of years.

While wolves may have initially approached human camps for food scraps, over time this contact led to the domestication of dogs as humans found utility in dogs for hunting, security, and companionship. Dogs played a key role across human cultures prior to the domestication of other livestock species. Their early domestication stands as one of the most consequential developments in the history of human civilization (Springer, 2020).

Conclusion

While dogs were likely one of the earliest domesticated animals, the earliest conclusive evidence points to sheep as being the first domesticated animal species. Around 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East, ancestors of modern sheep were domesticated from wild mouflon for their meat, milk, wool and skins. Clear archaeological evidence in the form of skeletal remains shows physical changes consistent with domestication at sites such as Zawi Chemi Shanidar in Iraq.

skeletal remains of domesticated sheep at archaeological site

In contrast, the domestication of dogs likely occurred much earlier, with estimates ranging from 14,000 to 40,000 years ago based on DNA and archaeological evidence. However, the precise timing and location of early canine domestication is still debated by researchers, with some contending it occurred independently in multiple areas. While dogs and wolves share an evolutionary relationship and interbred during domestication, identifying the earliest transition to domesticated dogs is challenging.

Overall, sheep represent the earliest domesticate for which we have definitive archaeological proof, while molecular studies continue to provide insights into the deeper ancestry of domesticated dogs. Looking ahead, advanced DNA analysis and new archaeological discoveries may reveal an even earlier domestication process for additional animal species.

Scroll to Top