Remains of a supposed dog dating to 31,680 years ago actually belonged to a wolf, according to a new study that has canine experts completely rethinking the origin and ancestry of dogs.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, says that domestication of dogs happened during the Neolithic era (10,200 B.C.-2,000 B.C.) -- when people began to farm and form permanent settlements -- as opposed to the Paleolithic era (2.6 million years ago to 10,200 B.C.) , when humans and their early ancestors were hunter-gatherers.
"Previous research has claimed that dogs emerged in the Paleolithic but this claim is based on inaccurate analyses," lead author Abby Grace Drake told Discovery News. "We reanalyzed some of the fossil canids from the Paleolithic and show that they are, in fact, wolves."
"We did confirm that the Neolithic specimens Shamanka II (around 7,372 years old) and Ust'-Belaia (about 6,817 years old) are dogs, and therefore domestication took place by this time period or earlier," added Drake, who is an assistant professor of biology at Skidmore College.
Drake and colleagues Michael Coquerelle and Guillaume Colombeau used 3-D computer imaging to study the 31,680-year-old fossil found at Goyet Cave in Belgium, as well as a 13,905-year-old fossil unearthed at a site called Eliseevichi in Russia.
The researchers then compared these fossils, which were previously identified via caliper measurements as early dogs, to other ancient and modern dogs and wolves. Features such as the muzzle and eye sockets were determined to be more wolf than dog.
The findings as a whole indicate that dogs did not gradually evolve from a wolf-like ancestor over a long period of time. Instead, Drake and her team believe that domestication of dogs likely happened "quite quickly," and did not involve direct domestication of wolves.
"Wolves are far too dangerous to have around without adequate means of controlling them," Drake said. "It is more likely that the initial stages of domestication involved at least several generations of wolves breeding in proximity to humans, lured by the 'dumps' that were present near the first permanent human settlements."