99% WOLF

Dogs have been working alongside humans for much longer than we thought

The cuddliest coworkers around.
The cuddliest coworkers around.
Image: M Bonde
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It’s time to rewrite the record on dogs with jobs. We all know humans have long bred canines into all sizes and shapes to do our bidding—even if that’s just sitting in a queen’s sleeve or a celebrity’s purse. But we didn’t know for how long we’d been doing it.

Previously, researchers believed that canine breeding began 7,000 years ago with herding dogs in the Near East. New discoveries, published this May in the Journal of Archaeology, suggest the first work dogs were actually designed in Siberia at least 9,000 years ago, based on fossil carbon dating and the shape of the bones.

Vladimir Pitulko, an archaeologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, has been excavating bones on Zhokhov Island in Siberia since 1989. He long suspected that they belonged to dogs bred for sledding. In an effort to confirm exactly what type of animal a particular collection of bones belonged to, he compared the fossils of 11 individual animal remains to known wolf and modern Siberian husky bones found in the area.

The archaeologist wasn’t surprised to find that the ancient bones did indeed belong to canines. He was surprised to see evidence of a breeding program indicating dogs were designed for specific functions.

He says the dogs appear to have been bred in two sizes for two different tough jobs: Most of the remains indicated small(ish) dogs resembling today’s Siberian huskies that Pitulko believes likely pulled sleds across the Arctic ice when the region that would become Zhokhov island was still connected to Siberia. These dog bones were smaller than wolves’ and the right size for pulling a sled without overheating—Pitulko has already found evidence of wooden sleds on the island.

But one of Pitulko’s samples was larger, and, based on skull shape, appeared to be a wolf-dog hybrid. This animal seems similar to today’s Alaskan malamutes; Pitulko posits this breed, which is large and not ideal for sledding, was likely bred for something special, perhaps hunting polar bears in winter which is something humans were known to do.

Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly what the dog bones signify, but other archaeologists believe Pitulko is onto something big, possibly explaining a mystery of dog domestication. Other animals, like foxes, hung around human campfires and became tame, based on archaeological evidence, but none won a place in the human heart and home like the wolf now known as Fido.

The tamed wolves served a purpose, perhaps more than one, and this research seems to confirm the suspicion that the human-dog relationship persisted because people found work for them. Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany (who was not involved in the research), told Science that Pitulko’s work “fills in a missing piece of the puzzle of early human-dog relationships, and even domestication itself.”

When dog domestication began exactly is unknown, but the new evidence of work dogs on Zhokhov island supports 2015 findings that it may have been as long ago as 15,000-30,000 years. Scientists hypothesize that the Earth began warming at this time, which led to the wide availability of smaller prey, like reindeer, which replaced large creatures, like mammoths. Unlike mammoths, reindeer were attainable for people—especially with the help of dogs to follow and help hunt. “Before then, there was no real reason to have a dog. We turned to them when we really needed them,” Pitulko says.

Since, the human-dog relationship has evolved and we’ve come to love these creatures who were once wolves in the wild for much more than just their labor. Arguably, the most important job dogs have historically had and continue to excel in is friendship.

Pitulko dedicated his work to his dachshund named Liverpool. He calls the dog a “true friend.”