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Oxford research shows ancient bonds between dogs and humans

New research has revealed that dogs travelled alongside the first humans who journeyed to the Americas. A team of international geneticists and archaeologists, which includes Oxford University’s Professor Greger Larson, have discovered that dogs arrived with the first European settlers around 23,000 years ago. These dogs developed over generations to become genetically distinct from their European counterparts.  

The study concluded that “the first people to enter the Americas likely did so with their dogs. The subsequent geographic dispersal and genetic divergences within each population suggest that where people went, dogs went too.”

“The convergence of the early genetic histories of people and dogs in Siberia and Beringia suggests that this may be the region where humans and wolves first entered into a domestic relationship.” 

Researchers have also found that the bond between humans and dogs goes back much further than previously thought. The study concluded that the partnership began somewhere between 26,000 and 19,000 years ago – around 11,000 years earlier than previous archaeological evidence had suggested.  

The study went on to note the possibilities for future research: “since their emergence from wolves, dogs have played a wide variety of roles within human societies, many of which are specifically tied to the lifeways of cultures worldwide. Future archaeological research combined with numerous scientific techniques, will no doubt reveal how the emerging mutual relationship between people and dogs led to their successful dispersal across the globe.” 

Speaking to the Oxford Arts Blog, Professor Larson, the Oxford researcher involved in the project, said: “we knew dogs were the oldest domesticated species, and these findings now suggest that the initial process of domestication began around 23,000 years ago in north-east Siberia. From there, people and dogs moved together east into the Americas, south towards east Asia, and west towards Europe and Africa.” 

He also pointed to the biological links between the ancient European and American dogs: “we found a very strong correlation between the pattern of ancient dogs’ genetic diversification and the genetic signatures of early Americans. The similarities between the two species is striking and suggests the shared pattern is not a coincidence.” 

Today, few traces of the ancient American dogs remain. When later waves of Europeans arrived with their own canines, the indigenous dogs were almost completely wiped out. This means researchers are reliant on a variety of scientific techniques to reconstruct the biology of these ancient creatures. 

Professor Larson has been involved in previous projects investigating prehistoric pooches, including the existence of the ancient dire wolves, which featured in the popular TV series Game of Thrones. Asked about this preoccupation, he responded: “I grew up with dogs, and I always interact with them when they walk by.”

“Dogs were the first species to enter into a mutualistic relationship with us. It was a key shift in the evolution of our species…It is amazing how much everything began to change after that. 

“For the vast majority of our species’ history we travelled alone and made a tiny impression on the earth’s ecology. Now there are eight billion of us and we depend on a range of domestic plants and animals for the maintenance of our huge global population. Imagine what society would be like if we had not formed mutually interdependent relationships with so many other domestic plants and animals. And it all started with dogs.”

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