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4 August 2011
33,000-year-old dog skull unearthed in Siberia

A very well-preserved 33,000 year old canine skull from a cave in the Siberian Altai mountains shows some of the earliest evidence of dog domestication ever found. But the specimen raises doubts about early man's loyalty to his new best friend as times got tough.
     The skull, from shortly before the peak of the last ice age, is unlike those of modern dogs or wolves. The archaeologists have detected that while its snout is similar in size to that of Greenland dogs found 1,000 years ago, it has teeth that would have resembled wild European wolves. This indicates a dog in the very early stages of domestication, says evolutionary biologist Dr Susan Crockford, one of the authors on the study.
     "The wolves were not deliberately domesticated, the process of making a wolf into a dog was a natural process," explained Dr Crockford of Pacific Identifications, Canada. But for this to happen required settled early human populations: "At this time, people were hunting animals in large numbers and leaving large piles of bones behind, and that was attracting the wolves," she said.
     The most curious, least fearful wolves tended to have more juvenile characteristics with shorter, wider snouts and smaller, more crowded teeth, features that, over generations, came to define the domesticated dog. These early dogs would have been useful to people in cleaning up scraps and fending off other predators, but over the last 10,000 years, they became key members of the team, believes Oxford University archaeologist Professor Thomas Higham, a co-author on the study. "Hunters with dogs are much better than sole hunters," he said.
     Intriguingly though, this much older early Siberian dog seems to have hit an evolutionary dead end. While people continued to occupy the Altai through the depths of the last ice age, they seem to have done so without their dogs, perhaps as food became more scarce. "What the ice age did was to cause people to move around more," said Dr Crockford, halting the process of domestication and setting wolves and people back into competition for perhaps 20,000 years. It also meant the competition for food between the wolves and humans continued.

Edited from BBC News (3 August 2011), Mail Online (4 August 2011)

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