Bone from 17,000 years ago shows how long humans have loved dogs

A happy border collie dog lays down on grass with its tongue out outdoors.
When did the human race first domesticate dogs? (Getty) (Purple Collar Pet Photography via Getty Images)

Dogs as we know them today are descended from wolves - and scientists have unearthed new evidence which may point to when humans first fed and tamed the wild beasts.

A bone unearthed in 1977 in a cave in Erralla in Spain is now thought to be Europe’s oldest remains of a domesticated dog – dating from 17,000 years ago.

The humerus was unearthed in a cave in the Basque Country in the 70s, but researchers lacked the genetic technology to identify if it came from a domestic dog.

Conchi de la Rúa, head of the Human Evolutionary Biology group at the University of the Basque Country, said: “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 climate crisis,”

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The researchers wrote, “Our results confirm the identification of this specimen as Canis lupus familiaris.”

Previously, researchers had believed the bone was a dhole (an Asian wild dog).

The Human Evolutionary Biology team carried out an in-depth study of the bone remains.

A morphological, radiometric and genetic analysis has enabled the species to be identified genetically as Canis lupus familiaris (domestic dog).

The humerus was unearthed in 1985 (UPV/EHU)
The humerus was unearthed in 1985. (UPV/EHU) (UPV/EHU)

The direct dating of the humerus by means of carbon-14 using particle accelerator mass spectrometry gives it an age of 17,410-17,096 years before the present day.

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That means that the Erralla dog lived in the Magdalenian period of the Upper Palaeolithic era, which makes it one of the most ancient domestic dogs to have existed so far in Europe.

The Erralla dog shares the mitochondrial lineage with the few Magdalenian dogs analysed so far.

The origin of this lineage is linked to a period of cold climate coinciding with the last glacial maximum, which occurred in Europe around 22,000 years ago.

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