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Marie Luna Durán
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The domestication and first utilizations of the dog (part 1/5)

Read the whole article and more in the FCI Centenary Book

Bernard DENIS, France
Honorary Professor, National Veterinary School, Nantes
Ex-member of the FCI Scientific Commission
Translation: J. Mulholland

Nowadays, the domestication of the dog is a topic which arouses passion. It is a fact that archaeological knowledge continues to grow and, above all, the advent of molecular genetics and the accumulation of resulting data generates many questions and gives rise to passionate debates. The canine press eagerly publishes the slightest new finding which sometimes results in the traditional conceptions being considered as out-of-date. Obviously, this is partly true but one must be careful not to exaggerate by forgetting, for example, in the absence of certainties, that it is sometimes useful to use simple common sense. Moreover, ideas will certainly evolve as new research results appear.

In this presentation, which we want to be very synthetic and more educational than a mere review, we shall continue to put forth classic ideas about domestication in general and of the dog in particular but, of course, we shall also evoke the most important questions which arise about them today. As usual, we shall first discuss the domestication process itself, with the questions “when, where, why, how?”, followed by the consequences of domestication on the animal and, finally, we shall discuss the first utilizations of the dog.

We have used many passages from a very rich document which was recently published in France and in which many authors have participated1. More precise references, from this work or not, will be given as foot notes at the bottom of the page. We can also mention a recent synthesis in French which privileges the latest findings from international research, especially in the field of molecular genetics2.

The process of domestication

In spite of some residual debates, it is almost unanimously accepted today that thedog evolved from the wolf. Whether they both be considered as two distinct species (Canis familiaris on one hand, Canis lupus on the other, according to the classic conception) or that the dog is a simple sub-species of the wolf, is still being debated. If a consensus cannot be established, it is due to certain degree of vagueness which persists around the definition of the species. It is easier to bury the classic conception– two distinct species – especially as the dog probably originates from several sub-species of wolves.

© Wikimedia commons
Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos)

Let us try to answer quickly the questions: when, where, why and how was the dog domesticated?3

When did we domesticate the dog?

Domestication in general is readily associated with the Neolithic period. In reality, the process was considerably spread out over time as it began, with the dog, right in the middle of the Palaeolithic period and it still continues today with attempts to domesticate new species.

The Dog is the first species which became domestic, its presence as of 18 000 to 12 000 BC, depending on the zones, being attested by archaeological research. For the sake of simplicity, we readily retain the approximate date of 15 000 BC. It is the only domestic species which the hunters-gatherers knew and it thus finds itself associated with the latter’s way of life. The domestication of the Dog in no way introduced that of species for consumption - Sheep, Goat, Pig, Cow – which occurred as of 8 500 BC, in other words more than 6 000 years later, in another culture, that of breeders-farmers. The domestication of the dog is therefore of a different nature than that of farm species.4

The theory according to which the Dog could have been domesticated earlier had already been formulated but without going back as far as a molecular genetics study thought able to conclude in 1997: 100 000 ans5 ! This proposal was quickly revised, especially by the same researchers, with a consensus finally being reached between archaeologists and geneticists to establish the date at around 15 000 BC6. Having stated that, the association of wolf bones and human remains, even more ancient, makes us readily believe today in a long period of “pre-domestication” cohabitation; by following groups of hunters-gatherers who tolerated their presence at a distance, some wolves could have gradually become isolated from their pack who remained outside the human sphere and may have become somewhat “self-tamed”, thus preparing domestication7. The fact that the dog understands humans, even just by a simple glance, better than a chimpanzee, could be explained by this very long period of commensalism prior to domestication properly speaking.8

1 Le chien: domestication, raciation, utilisations dans l’histoire (The dog: domestication, raciation and utilizations in history), extracts from educational days organized by the Société d’Ethnozootechnie and the Société Centrale Canine on November 17, 2005 and February 28, 2006 (234 pages). There are many specialized articles and others, synthetic, among which Des origines du chien (Origins of the dog), by Yves LINGNEREUX (see note 8).

2 LICARI, S., “La domestication du chien” (Domestication of the dog) in Cynophilie Française, 2009, n° 145, pp 32-35 & n°146, pp. 22-27. See also : GALIBERT, F., QUIGNON, P., HITTE. et ANDRÉ, C., « Toward understanding dog evolutionary and domestication history. Histoire de la domestication du chien », C.R.Biologies, 2011, 334, 190-196.

3 The expression is classical but, it is of course more appropriate to speak of the domestication of the wolf…

4 VIGNE, J.D., Les origines de la culture: les débuts de l’élevage (Origins of culture : the beginning of breeding), in Coll. “Le Collège de la Cité”, Le Pommier and the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie Ed., Paris, 2004.

5 VILA, C et al, « Multiple and ancient origins of the domestic dog », Science,1997, 276, 1687-1689.

6 LEONARD, J.A. et al., « Ancient DNA evidence for old world origin of new world dogs », Science, 2002, 298, 1613-1616. – SAVOLAINEN, P. et al.: see note 9.

7 This theory was popularized in particular by COPPINGER, 2001, Dogs: a new understanding of canine origin, behaviour and evolution, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2001.

8 LIGNEREUX, Y., « Des origines du Chien » (Origins of the dog ), in Ethnozootechnie, 2006, n°78, 11-28.