Lead researcher Nikolai Ovodov of the Russian Academy of Science "was immediately suspicious that there was something different" about the 33,000-year-old canine skull found in a cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.
Odvodov turned to evolutionary biologist Susan Crockford, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) - a specialist in the biology of ancient dogs, and an expert in dog domestication among aboriginal nations in North America - for help in analysing the specimen and comparing it with other early cases of canine evolution.
"It doesn't meet all of the criteria for what we consider to be a fully domesticated dog," she said; "It's got some evidence that it is part-way through the process... It's smaller than a wolf but it still has wolf-sized teeth."
Crockford - part of a six-member team of researchers from Russia, Britain, the USA and the Netherlands - said the process of domestication "was, in most cases, entirely natural" and not really a "human accomplishment," which began when wolves began living at the fringes of human encampments and scavenging meals from piles of the discarded bones of human-hunted game.
"Traditional anthropological definitions of domestication consider the process to be a deliberate act of selection by humans," the published study states. "However, this view has been challenged in recent years by the hypothesis that animals colonised anthropogenic environments of their own volition and evolved into new species via natural evolutionary processes. ... After initial changes occurred, the resulting new species were modified during their association with people via natural adaptation, human selection, and genetic drift."
It is believed the wolf-dog lineage seen in the Altai Mountains specimen did not continue through the Ice Age that took hold of the region beginning some 25,000 years ago.
Edited from Postmedia News, The Vancouver Sun (19 December 2011)
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Earliest evidence of transition from wolf to dog
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