Dogs, domesticated before agriculture

By Razib Khan | October 21, 2012 11:27 pm

The domestication of the dog is a complex and unresolved topic. But at this point I am convinced that this is one domestication event which well predates agriculture. To some extent this is common sense. There are tentative archaeological finds of domestic dogs in the New World almost immediately after widespread human habitation of the Western hemisphere, >10,000 years ago. More concretely domestic dog DNA has been retrieved from ~9,250 year old coprolites in Texas. The distinctiveness of the New World dogs is well attested genetically. Eskimo dogs for example are nested in a well diverged clade with “ancient dogs” (e.g., Basenji), indicating their early separation from the main Eurasian stock. Additionally, from talking to a dog geneticist I am to understand that the Eskimo dogs themselves are likely new arrivals, and superseded older dog lineages in the far north.

These results suggest to me that by the late Pleistocene many of the hunter-gatherer populations of Eurasia existed in a symbiotic relationship with domestic dogs. I suspect that the dog lineages in fact predate the late Pleistocene, and the earliest tendencies toward coexistence with humans may date to before the Last Glacial Maximum. And yet an interesting sidelight to this is that in Australasia it seems that the native domestic dogs, the singing dog and the dingo, postdate agriculture, and derive from Southeast Asian dogs (arriving ~5,000 years ago). Clearly the story of the dogs of the world has several chapters. There are many debates about the exact location of the “first dogs,” whether in the Middle East or East Asia. These arguments often seem to place the date of origin of modern dog lineages in the very early Holocene, around the time of agriculture. This contradicts hints from archaeology, and is difficult to square with the likely arrival of dogs with the First Americans.

And yet in hindsight the pre-agricultural constraint of the geographic expanse of the dog shouldn’t be too surprising (Sub-Saharan African domestic and feral dogs seem to derive from Middle Eastern dogs who arrived through the Nile Valley during the Bronze Age). Wolves, from whom dogs derive, are creatures of the Palearctic ecozone. A later expansion into tropical Asia and Africa is less surprising, as perhaps the lifestyles of human populations in those regions were not congenial to canine hunting companions before agriculture. The phylogeny of dogs can tell us a lot about human migration. But the presence of absence of dogs can also tell us about the constraints of human societies, and how they reshaped their ecology.

MORE ABOUT: Domestic dogs
  • Hermenauta

    I´m no specialist in these matters, but there is a line of reasoning that says dogs do not evolved from wolves but from another canid that separated from the wolf line much earlier:

    Seems pretty reasonable to me, but I don´t know if genetic evidence supports that.

  • Razib Khan

    #2, genetics doesn’t support it to my kowledge. and 200-500 K isn’t THAT long in the past either. don’t know off the top of my head how far back gray wolves are as a monophyletic lineage, but i think it’s further back than that.

  • John Emerson

    Is there place-and-time series somewhere for the domestication of various animals? I have books on the camel and on the horse / ass / onager, and scattered information about other beasts, but a consensus overview would be nice.

  • Karl Zimmerman
  • Dm

    Old Canis familaris has lost its species status, and became a subspecies of Canis lupus, all the way back in 1993. Of course there are still people who disagree, mostly on emtional grounds. In any case a subspecies status shouldn’t be taken as a statement that modern dogs literally evolved from modern wolves. But their ancestors must have differed to no greater extent than subspecies do.

    In any case, with the overwhelming bottlenecking, inbreeding, and selection, wouldn’t it be next to impossible to decipher the canine genetic history with contemporary DNA specimens? All the drift is too much in the way IMVHO, and until the actual ancient dog DNA is studied (if ever), we’ll remain largely clueless.

  • Dave Webb

    It’s generally accepted that Old World dogs had been domesticated by the Mesolithic, and were the first domesticate. There was an academic paper some years back (~8-9) that offered evidence suggesting dogs may have been domesticated as early as 90,000 years ago. More recently, some evidence from Eurasia points to dates in the late Pleistocene sometime after 30-35,000 years ago. Bottom line? Dogs had been domesticated by Mesolithic times, but the earliest might have been domesticated 10,000 years earlier, perhaps even more.

  • Doggerland

    AFAIK, the first/oldest found dog bones are from Belgium around 30.000 yrs ago (then Russia, about 14.000 yrs ago) and there are tracks of a child AND of a dog, walking together in a cave, about 26.000 yrs ago in France, that could support the idea of a domesticated animal:

  • kittenz

    One thing I’ve always wondered about. I think that the domestication event that produced dogs began many thousands of years ago, probably in many different places at many different times, with varying degrees of success. But I wonder why we don’t see more dogs in prehistoric art? We don’t see a lot of human figures, either, though. Perhaps people were so accustomed to the presence of dogs that they thought of them as “part of the family”. It’s odd, though. The only early representations of dogs in art that I know of are from Australia and (I think) from northern Africa.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    The farther back dogs were domesticated, the more time for humans to co-evolve with their canine helpmates. For example, maybe we used to be better at smelling, but outsourced this task to our dogs, freeing up human brain real estate to … well, I don’t know, but it might have been something important.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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