The book! Part Two: The dog’s ancestor.

Mankind, Nature and Dogs

The dog’s ancestor: the wolf.

When we look at some breeds of dogs, for example the smaller breeds such as the Chihuahua, it beggars believe that thousands of years ago there was a common ancestor to the dog and to today’s wolf. Of course, not so if one looks at, for example, a German Shepherd dog (GSD). Many GSDs look like they are first cousin to a wolf!

However, when we look at the Latin binomial nomenclature for the wolf and the dog it all becomes clear irrespective of the specific dog breed. I am, of course, referring to canis lupus for the wolf and canis lupus familiaris for the dog. For those, like me, that had to refresh their memory of this naming convention, the first part of the name identifies the genus to which the species belongs; the second part identifies the species within the genus. For example, humans belong to the genus Homo and within this genus to the species Homo sapiens.

Thus both the wolf and the dog belong to the same genus. Conforming to the widely held view that the domesticated dog is a direct descendent of the wolf.
So far, so good!

When we turn to the history of how the particular species lupus familiaris split away from lupus then it all becomes much less clear.

Let’s take a little trip along that particular journey.

The widely held view was that sometime during the Mesolithic period, or around 10,000 years ago, when humans started settling down, turning their backs on hunting and gathering, there was contact with humans and wolves that led to (a few) wolves living their lives in and around humans and from thence the long evolutionary journey to the dog.

But it is an understanding that is not fully shared by all in the field.

Take, for example, husband and wife team, Raymond and Lorna Coppinger. In their book Dogs[ 2001 – The University of Chicago Press] , they challenge this view[ page 41] :

The widely popular view is that people created dogs by artificial selection. People took the pups from wolf dens and made pets out of them. They tamed them, trained them, and took them out hunting. After many generations of this regime, the wolves evolved into dogs.

The biological implausibility of this leads me to flights of fancy, and I tend to call it the Pinocchio Hypothesis.

What the wolf-pup-into-dog hypothesis is really depending on is that wolves are related to dogs (true), that dogs easily form associations with people (true), and that therefore wolves must have formed relationships with people in the past (not true).

The Coppingers go on to write[ page 51] that, “There is no archaeological evidence that Mesolithic people had a big enough population of trained or tamed wolves living among them.” Severe doubt is expressed about the connection between wolves and dogs.

Even if Mesolithic[ Page 49 of the book Dogs] people were able to tame generations of wolves, and then train some of them to obey simple commands (for example, to come when called, or sit), still the burning question remains: What changes wolf genes into dog genes?
When tamed wolves reproduce, they get wild pups (oriented away from human activity). When dogs reproduce, they get tame pups (oriented toward human activity). The two species are intrinsically, instinctively, generally distinct, one from the other, in this respect.

The Coppingers proposition is that there was a common ancestor to both the wolf and the dog, details of which have not been discovered. That this common ancestor goes back much further in time, sufficiently far so for the differences between wolves and dogs that we see today. Or, indeed, saw back in those earlier days.

Let me return to the Mesolithic period simply because many readers may again share my lack of detailed understanding of when that period was. A quick web search came up with the answer[and others]!

The Mesolithic period is generally regarded as that time period between the last glaciation, at the end of the Paleolithic era, some 12,000 years ago, and the start of the Neolithic era, some 7,000 years ago. In other words, between 7,000 and 12,000 years ago. This was the period where man evolved from a hunter-gather existence, when humans learned to hunt in groups and to fish, when farming communities began to be established as people first discovered how to cultivate crops and began to learn how to domesticate animals and plants.

Strikes me as perfectly reasonable to see this period as the most significant single development in the history of humans.

Returning to the differences between wolves and dogs already apparent as humans entered the Neolithic period one can quite reasonably infer that the split came about many thousands of years before.
That the domesticated dog is originally from the wolf genus is not beyond doubt even if the period when it occurred is unclear.

Dr. George Johnson wrote an article that appeared on the website ON SCIENCE that explored the evolution of the family dog. He found himself wondering about the origins of his dog, Boswell, who had recently died.

This week I found myself wondering about Boswell’s origins. From what creature did the domestic dog arise? Darwin suggested that wolves, coyotes, and jackals — all of which can interbreed and produce fertile offspring– may all have played a role, producing a complex dog ancestry that would be impossible to unravel. In the 1950s, Nobel Prize-winning behaviorist Konrad Lorenz suggested some dog breeds derive from jackals, others from wolves.

Based on anatomy, most biologists have put their money on the wolf, but until recently there was little hard evidence, and, as you might expect if you know scientists, lots of opinions.

The issue was finally settled in 1997 by an international team of scientists led by Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles. To sort out the evolutionary origin of the family dog, Wayne and his colleagues used the techniques of molecular biology to compare the genes of dogs with those of wolves, coyotes and jackals.

Dr. Johnson went on to explain that Professor Wayne and his team collected, “blood, tissue, or hair from 140 dogs of sixty-seven breeds, and 162 wolves from North America, Europe, Asia, and Arabia. From each sample they extracted DNA from the tiny organelles within cells called mitochondria.

He went on to write:

When Wayne looked at his canine mitochondrial DNA samples, he found that wolves and coyotes differ by about 6% in their mitochondrial DNA, while wolves and dogs differ by only 1%. Already it smelled like the wolf was the ancestor.

Wolves had 27 different sequences in the control region, none of them exactly the same as any dog sequence, but all very similar to the dog sequences, differing from them at most at 12 sites along the DNA, and usually fewer.

Coyote and jackal were a lot more different from dogs than wolves were. Every coyote and jackal sequence differed from any dog sequence by at least 20 sites, and many by far more.

That settled it. Dogs are domesticated wolves.

Dr. Johnson’s penultimate paragraph addressed the question of when dogs first appeared.

The large number of different dog sequences, and the fact that no wolf sequences are found among them, suggests that dogs must have been separated from wolves for a long time. The oldest clear fossil evidence for dogs is 12,000 – 14,000 years ago, about when farming arose. But that’s not enough time to accumulate such a large amount of mitochondrial DNA difference. Perhaps dogs before then just didn’t look much different from wolves, and so didn’t leave dog-like fossils. Our species first developed speech and left Africa about 50,000 years ago. I bet that’s when dogs came aboard, when our hunter-gatherer ancestors first encountered them. They would have been great hunting companions.

The scientist, who writes under the nom-de-plume of Patrice Ayme, wrote an essay in April, 2014 under the title of Neanderthal Superiority. Towards the end of that essay he explains:


Some of the arguments against Neanderthals have been outright ridiculous: not only we were told, without any evidence, that they could not talk, but that the superiority of Africans came from eating shell fish, about 70,000 years ago (along the East Coast of Africa).

However, it has since been discovered that Neanderthal cavemen supped on shellfish on the Costa del Sol 150,000 years ago, punching another torpedo hole in the theory that only Africans ate (supposedly) brain-boosting seafood.

Neanderthals also used coal, as long ago as 73,000 years. Once again, making a fire in present day France, then suffering from a pretty bad glaciation, made more sense than trying to stay warm in the Congo.

Earlier and earlier prehistoric art has been found. It’s getting ever harder to claim that Neanderthals had nothing to do with it. Neanderthals also domesticated, and genetically engineered dogs, from European wolves. That’s very clear.

How do I know this? Simple. The Goyet dog, pictured below, was dated around 32,000 years. In 2010, an even older dog was found in the Altai mountains. Both dogs were derived from Canis Lupus Familiaris, the European wolf, but were quite distant from it, genetically, they had been evolved probably on a time scale of more than 10,000 years, thus well before any arrival of Sapiens Sapiens from Africa.

Those dogs were completely compatible with people, just as contemporary dogs are. Proof? Ancient, 26,000-year-old footprints made by a child and a dog deep in the Chauvet Cave, France. (OK, by then Neanderthals have been just deemed “extinct” by some… However, these are still the same dogs Neanderthals invented.)

In that essay, Patrice included a link to an article that appeared on the NBCNEWS website.

An international team of scientists has just identified what they believe is the world’s first known dog, which was a large and toothy canine that lived 31,700 years ago and subsisted on a diet of horse, musk ox and reindeer, according to a new study.

The discovery could push back the date for the earliest dog by 17,700 years, since the second oldest known dog, found in Russia, dates to 14,000 years ago.

Remains for the older prehistoric dog, which were excavated at Goyet Cave in Belgium, suggest to the researchers that the Aurignacian people of Europe from the Upper Paleolithic period first domesticated dogs. Fine jewellery and tools, often decorated with depictions of big game animals, characterize this culture.

There was study published in the PLOS ONE scientific journal in March 2013 where the lead author, Dr. Robert Losey [Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta], explained:

Dog burials appear to be more common in areas where diets were rich in aquatic foods because these same areas also appear to have had the densest human populations and the most cemeteries,

If the practice of burying dogs was solely related to their importance in procuring terrestrial game, we would expect to see them in the Early Holocene (around 9,000 years ago), when human subsistence practices were focused on these animals. Further, we would expect to see them in later periods in areas where fish were never really major components of the diet and deer were the primary focus, but they are rare or absent in these regions.

The PLOS ONE paper went on to report that researchers found that most of the dog burials occurred during the Early Neolithic period, some 7,000-8,000 years ago, and that “dogs were only buried when human hunter-gatherers were also being buried.”

The strong implication being expressed by Dr. Losey is that the relationship between humans and dogs was as close and intimate as we modern-day humans know; to the point of almost taking it for granted. A relationship that had had thousands of years to become the way it was, and still is.

Back to Dr. Losey: “I think the hunter-gatherers here saw some of their dogs as being nearly the same as themselves, even at a spiritual level. At this time, dogs were the only animals living closely with humans, and they were likely known at an individual level, far more so than any other animal people encountered. People came to know them as unique, special individuals.

If dogs had already been part of our lives for some considerable time by the time we humans had turned away from hunting and gathering and started settling down, then we are lead, inexorably, to the question of how did it all begin? What were the circumstances of early man befriending a wolf or two and how from that relationship did it evolve into the tameness that was the start of the dog journey?

Maybe a true story from recent times offers us an insight into the answer to that question. This story was told to me by DR when I was living in Payson, Arizona. An amazing true story of a relationship between a wild wolf and a man. A story of a particular event in the life of Tim Woods, a brother of DR.

It revolves around the coming together of a man sleeping rough, with his dog, on Mingus Mountain, and a fully grown female Grey Wolf. Mingus is in the Black Hills mountain range between Cottonwood and Prescott in the State of Arizona, USA.

DR and his brother, Tim, belong to a large family; there are 7 sons and 2 daughters. Tim had a twin brother, Tom, and DR knew from an early age that Tim was different.

As DR explained,

Tim was much more enlightened than the rest of us. I remember that Tim and Tom, as twin brothers, could feel each other in almost a mystical manner. I witnessed Tom grabbing his hand in pain when Tim stuck the point of his knife into his (Tim’s) palm. Stuff like that! Tim just saw more of life than most other people.

The incident involving the wolf was when Tim was in his late 40s and, as mentioned, was living in a rough shack on the mountain. The shack was simply a plywood shelter with an old couch and a few blankets for the cold nights. The dog was companion, guard and a means of keeping Tim in food; the dog was a great hunter. But Tim was no stranger to living in the wild.

DR again,

Tim was ex-US Army and a great horseman. There was a time when he was up in the Superstition Mountains, sleeping rough, riding during the day. At night Tim would get the horse to lay down and Tim would sleep with his back next to the horse for warmth.

Anyway, Tim was up on Mingus Mountain using an old disk from an agricultural harrow as both a cook-pan and plate. After he had finished eating, Tim would leave his ‘plate’ outside his shack. It would be left out in the open over night.

Tim gradually became aware that a creature was coming by and licking the plate clean and so Tim started to leave scraps of food on the plate. Then one night, Tim was awoken to to the noise of the owner of the ‘tongue’ and saw that it was a large, female grey wolf.

The wolf became a regular visitor and Tim became sure that the wolf, now having been given the name Luna by Tim, was aware that she was being watched by a human.

Over many, many months Luna built up sufficient trust in Tim that eventually she would take food from Tim’s outstretched hand. It was only now a matter of time before Luna started behaving more like a pet[ DR showed my an unaltered photograph taken in 2006 showing Tim lying back on a blanket with his dog across his waist and sitting on its haunches just behind Tim and the dog was Luna the wolf.] dog than the wild wolf that she was.

From now on, Luna would stay the night with Tim and his dog, keeping watch over both of them.

DR also recalls,

I remember Tim being distraught because, without warning, Luna stopped coming by. Then a few months later back she was. Tim never did know what lay behind her absence but guessed it might have been because she went off to have pups.

Unfortunately, this wonderful tale does have a sad ending.

About two years ago, what would have been 2007, Tim lost his dog. He was awakened to hear a pack of coyotes yelping and his dog missing. Then tragically some 6 months later Tim contracted a gall bladder infection. Slowly it became worse. By the time he realised that it was sufficiently serious to require medical treatment, it was too late. Despite the best efforts of modern medicine, Tim died on June 25th, 2009, just 51 years young.

DR’s closing words to me were: “So if you are ever out on Mingus Mountain and hear the howl of a wolf, reflect that it could just be poor Luna calling out for her very special man friend.

I would close this particular chapter by pleading that whoever you are, wherever you are, if you hear the howl of a wolf allow yourself to disappear into your inner thoughts for a few precious moments and know that tens of thousands of years ago there was another Tim and another wolf. Keep that image in your mind for many reasons, not least so for this one. For those of you that have dogs in your lives and know what it feels like to gaze deeply into your dog’s eyes, then next time you are bonded eyes-to-eyes with your dog sense that first Tim cuddling up to that first Luna.

2,911 words Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover

5 thoughts on “The book! Part Two: The dog’s ancestor.

    1. What a lovely thing to say! Thank you, and welcome to the blog. Of course, you do realise that these postings of ‘the book’ are very much first drafts! To underline that, this particular chapter was being rewritten by me at 5am this morning!

      Look forward to hearing more from you.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Very good essay Paul, and thanks for quoting me! 😉 There has been a completely unexpected discovery in the field of human ancestry announced last week (by the most serious researcher in Paleo DNA). The claim is that an exact timing (around 60,000 years before present) was determined for Sapiens-Neanderthal breeding… from a leg bone in Siberia.
    If true, it changes nothing to all what you wrote above, though….


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