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Photo courtesy of Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Written by: Jacquelyn Prestegaard

Theories of canine domestication are as diverse as today’s vast array of dog breeds. The bones of canine ancestors and ancient writings are all archaeologists have to put together the species’ legacy, and many pieces of the story are still missing.

The domestication and use of dogs in ancient western European civilizations are explored in an article in the July issue of Animal Frontiers. Marie-Pierre Horard-Herbin of Université François-Rabelais, Tours, France, and Anne Tresset and Jean-Denis Vigne of the Département Ecologie et Gestion de la Biodiversité, in Paris, France comprise the team of researchers who have used archaeozoology to analyze the history of canines from the Upper Paleolithic to the Iron Age (approximately 20,000 to 2,000 years ago).

The domestication of wolves, the dogs’ sole ancestor, “… remains difficult to understand, in terms of chronology, geographic origin, and recurrence of the phenomenon.” Despite this, “The wide area over which wolves were dispersed and the scattering of the places where late glacial dogs have been observed, suggest that multiple independent domestication events took place across much of the Old World,” state the authors.

Archaeological observations also suggest that the first dogs appeared between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic. They were the first animals domesticated by hunter-gatherers of this period. Prehistoric canines are believed to primarily have assisted people in hunting. During the Mesolithic period (approximately 6,000 to 10,000 years ago), the archeological evidence indicates the emergence of diverse dog types, with the appearance of much smaller animals as well as previously unknown coat colors.

Archaic caninesThe switch from hunting to farming occurred at around 8,500 years ago, and dogs’ roles might have changed during this time as hunting was no longer the sole means of survival. Archeological evidence and ancient writings indicate various non-hunting roles for dogs, including waste disposal, protection, heating, companionship, and use as pack or draft animals. In addition, there is solid evidence suggesting that small dogs were commonly consumed during this time period.

“…The beginning of selection for certain morphotypes …” occurred during the Iron Age (beginning around 1,200 B.C.). Celtic Europeans selectively bred dogs for roles like hunting, fighting, guarding or pets. However, the value of each animal differed. “Some [dogs] were incinerated with their ‘master’ in a funeral context, while others were simply eaten,” explain the authors.

Still, joint human-dog burial has been observed frequently throughout history throughout a wide geographic area. Dogs were even laid on funeral pyres with people. Including dogs in these ceremonies may have been symbolic of a postmortem guardianship.

“…[This] clearly indicate[s] a great closeness between the two [humans and dogs], with a status close to that given to our modern-day pets,” wrote the authors.

As the technology of genetic analysis continues to advance, understanding the complex history of the domestication and use of man’s best friend will surely continue to improve.


Animal Frontiers is a joint venture between four globally active professional animal science societies: American Society of Animal Science (ASAS), Canadian Society of Animal Science (CSAS), the European Federation of Animal Science (EAAP), and the American Meat Science Association (AMSA). Each issue of Animal Frontiers consists of a series of invited, peer-reviewed articles that present several international perspectives on the status of a high-impact, global issue in animal agriculture today.

Media Contact:

Jacquelyn Prestegaard

ASAS Communications



Scientific Contact:

Larry Reynolds

ASAS Media Communications


The featured image was taking by Hagerty Ryan, U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service.