Humans may have domesticated dogs nearly 17.000 years ago, study claims

"Wolf domestication occurred earlier than proposed until now."
Nergis Firtina
Mosaic of a dog
Mosaic of a dog


A new study revealed a new link between dogs and humans. According to scientists, dog-human friendship dates back much earlier than we thought. That is, 17,000 years ago.

Thanks to an excavation led by Jesus Altuna in the Erralla cave (Zestoa, Gipuzkoa) in 1985, an almost complete family of carnivores, including wolves, dogs, foxes, and coyotes, among others, was unearthed. However, it was challenging to determine which canid species it was back in those days.

Fortunately, the team studying human evolution at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), under the direction of Professor Conchi de la Rúa, has managed to determine the bones' species. Canis lupus familiaris (domestic dogs) has been identified as the species using morphological, radiometric, and genomic investigation.

The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Humans may have domesticated dogs nearly 17.000 years ago, study claims
Image of the humerus recovered in an excavation in the Erralla cave (Zestoa, Gipuzkoa).

As stated in the release, the humerus was directly dated with carbon-14 using particle accelerator mass spectrometry, and its age was determined to be 17,410–17,096 cal. That makes the Erralla dog one of the oldest household canines to have lived in Europe, having existed during the Upper Palaeolithic Magdalenian period.

“These results raise the possibility that wolf domestication occurred earlier than proposed until now, at least in western Europe, where the interaction of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers with wild species, such as the wolf, may have been boosted in areas of glacial refuge (such as the Franco-Cantabrian) during this period of the climate crisis,” explained Conchi de la Rúa, head of the Human Evolutionary Biology group. 

How were the dogs domesticated?

At the end of the Miocene epoch, 6 million years ago, the Earth's temperature began to drop gradually. This resulted in the Ice Age, also known as the glaciations of the Pliocene and Pleistocene. Only certain kinds of animals that could adapt to these changes would survive, as forests and savannahs were frequently replaced with steppes or grasslands.

Animal domestication is a coevolutionary process in which a population adapts to a novel habitat that includes another species with developing habits in response to selective pressure. The domestication of animals, which started with the long-term bond between wolves and hunter-gatherers more than 15,000 years ago, was one of the most significant changes in human history. Dogs were the first domesticated species, the only major carnivore known to have lived in close quarters with humans during the Pleistocene, and the only domesticated animal species overall.

Study abstract:

Dogs are known to be the first species domesticated by humans, although the geographic and temporal origin of this process is still under debate in different fields of knowledge. In the present study, we examined a humerus from a canid recovered in the Lower Magdalenian level of the site of Erralla (Zestoa, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country, Spain), combining morphology, radiocarbon dating and genetics. Our results confirm the identification of this specimen as Canis lupus familiaris, discarding miss-identification with a dhole (Cuon alpinus) through genetic analyses of cytochrome b gene and mtDNA haplogroup. The direct AMS 14C dating (17,410–17,096 cal. BP) indicated that the Erralla specimen represents one of the earliest domesticated dogs in Europe, in the Lower Cantabrian Magdalenian period. We discuss our results in the light of the debate of the origin of dogs, conducting a critical review of the datings of sites of Eurasia that have provided remains of Paleolithic and Mesolithic dogs, including the so-called “dog-like wolves”.