German Cave Reveals Clues About the First Domesticated Wolves


Scientists have found new important clues about the first domesticated wolves and dogs.

A small cave in Germany contained numerous ancient canine fossils. They could point to a possible origin of all modern dogs. However, researchers stress this remains open to debate and further evidence.

Dogs are considered the oldest domesticated animal in human history well before humans transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture around 10,000 years ago.

Gnirshöhle Cave

A small cave called Gnirshöhle in the Hegau Jura region of southern Germany contained a wealth of canine fossils. Some date back to between 17,000 and 12,000 years old.

Thus, they predate other ancient canine fossils found in Europe by 3,000 years.

Scientists conducted DNA analysis on the fossils, which included dogs, wolves and fox remains. The fossils revealed clues about the animals’ diets. Humans were apparently feeding the canines a low protein diet.

Dr. Chris Baumann of the University of Tübingen said:

“We linked the morphology, genetics, and isotope characteristics, which led to the discovery that the examined bones originated from numerous different genetic lineages and that the new genomes sequenced from the samples cover the entire genetic range from wolf to domestic dog.”

Previous studies have found domesticated canines in two places: Asia and Europe. Eventually, dogs from Asia migrated with humans, largely replacing the western domesticated wolves.

Researchers discuss the study below:

Early Site of Domesticated Wolves

The study suggests that the Hegau Jura was a “potential center of early European wolf domestication.”

“The current research is unable to end this debate, but the genetic diversity discovered in southwestern Germany does suggest the early humans who live there tamed and reared animals from various wolf lineages,” write Science Alert.

By studying the dog and domesticated wolf haplotypes, the authors traced the last common ancestor. Amazingly, this ancestor existed 135,000 years ago in the Pleistocene. Could this suggest a possible “upper limit” for the first domestications?

Experts have long suggested that the first dogs may have diverged from wolves as long as 100,000 years ago. However, it’s generally agreed the first domesticated dogs emerged about 16,000 years ago in Europe and Siberia, reports Science Alert.

Obviously, there’s a big stretch between 100,000 and 16,000 years. Thus, much remains to be learned about domesticate wolves.

Siberian Wolf Hybrids

So far, the oldest found fossil considered a possible dog ancestor comes from Siberia and dates to 30,000 years ago. 

Found in a cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, the fossil resembled a wolf’s teeth with a shortened dog’s snout, a hybrid wolf. DNA analysis found the skull most closely resembled Tibetian MastiffsNewfoundlands, and Siberian Huskies.

However, scientists suspect the Siberian dog might have gone extinct due to advancing glacial periods 26,000 years ago. Thus, independent domestication elsewhere may have ultimately led to the dogs we know today. On the other hand, a Siberian animal could have migrated instead of going extinct.

In 2019, a Siberian man found a perfectly preserved Ice Age wolf head in the permafrost of the Arctic region of Yakutia. The head was 40,000 years old and may have been a subspecies that went extinct along with the mammoths. Judging by the head, it may have been 25% bigger than today’s wolves.

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Dogor the Prehistoric Puppy

Also in 2019, researchers exploring Yakutsk, Siberia found a perfectly preserved 18,000-year-old puppy. 

Scientists were baffled by the specimen, which they named Dogor. Interestingly, DNA tests could not show whether the animal was a dog or a wolf. 

“We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both – to dogs and wolves,” researcher David Stanton told CNN.

Due to climate change, more prehistoric creatures are being found in the permafrost all the time.

See more from Amazing Facts:

Oldest Undisputed Dog Fossil

The oldest undisputed dog fossil dates back to 14,000 years. It’s called the Bonn-Oberkassel dog found near Bonn, Germany. In 1914, workers found a grave that contained a puppy, a woman, and a man. It was the oldest known grave where humans and dogs were buried together, dating to the Paleolithic.

Analysis of the grave indicated the puppy was well-cared for. Thus, it became one of the first examples of early pet-human bonding.

Evidence suggests humans were caring for the sick puppy for weeks, which may have died from canine distemper.

Ancient Singing Dogs

Recently, we shared the story about the rediscovery of wild New Guinea Singing Dogs. Although considered extinct, DNA testing revealed the dogs were surviving in Papua New Guinea. For years, residents considered them feral strays. Hiding out in the rugged highlands of the island, they remained elusive.

New Guinea Singing Dogs are cat-like and sing with vocalizations compared to whales.

The dogs have genomic variants different from all other dogs today. Singing Dogs could be relatives of Australian dingoes and Asian dogs that humans brought to Oceania around 3,500 years ago.

New Guinea Singing Dogs may share a common ancestor with the Akita and Shiba Inu breeds.

As you can see, the story of how domesticated wolves led to modern dogs is highly complex. As you might expect, given our bonds today, ancient humans and canines developed tight bonds in many places.

Now the question is, did people first domesticate wolves, or did they decide to tame us?


Featured image: Image by Thomas Bohlen via Pixabay, Pixabay License


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