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Wolves Tamed Earlier by Human Hunters Than Once Thought

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Pleistocene Wolf
A lateral view of a Pleistocene wolf from the Trou des Nutons cave in Belgium from at least 26,000 years ago. Source: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Wolves may have been domesticated in Europe more than 18,000 years ago as they trailed roving hunter-gatherers, according to research that puts the taming of what became modern dogs earlier than previously thought.

Scientists analyzed DNA from ancient bones and found modern dogs are similar to European wolves that date before the rise of settled villages about 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, according to a study released today in the journal Science. Previous research suggested that the advent of the human settlements were what brought wolves nosing around for easy food scraps, said Heidi Parker, a scientist at the National Human Genome Research Institute who works on dog genetics.

That may mean that domestication wasn’t a one-way street, said Parker, who wasn’t involved in today’s study. Wolf-like animals may have been beneficial to humans when they hunted, and stayed near groups of roving hunters because scraps of food were easy to find, she said.

“Whatever kind of wolf or ancient dog-like creature started spending time with people because they saw some benefit,” Parker said. “At some point people found it to be a benefit too, to create the continued relationship.”

Using bones from ancient wolf-like and dog-like animals, two of which were more than 30,000 years old, the researchers, led by Olaf Thalmann at University of Turku in Finland, analyzed mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are the energy storehouses of the cell that are passed on with few alterations from mother to child.

The scientists compared the ancient DNA with that of 77 dogs, 49 wolves and four coyotes. The dogs were genetically grouped with the ancient European wolves, not their modern cousins. Dogs may have been bred from a group of European animals that are now extinct, the researchers suggested.

Because today’s study moves the domestication timeline back, it also suggests that some remains found in Russia and Belgium may have been domestication attempts that failed.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in San Francisco at elopatto@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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