The Goyet Dog
Dogs have been man’s best friend for ages. They provide company, help with the hunt, function as guard dogs and sometimes help herding cattle. In some cultures, they even serve as a source of food and clothing. Paleontologist Mietje Germonpre discusses her research into the domestication of dogs and the Goyet dog skull, the oldest dog skull known to date.
“Morphological and genetic research has proven that dogs descend from wolves.” says Mietje. “The first dogs were domesticated wolves. But we’re still not sure why and how wolves were domesticated!”
The evolution from wolf to dog
Two important hypotheses could explain the evolution from wolf to dog. The first theory assumes that domestication began when prehistoric man took a number of wolf cubs from a wild nest. Then, the tamest, man-friendly and least aggressive animals were chosen to breed. Dogs came to be by making a strong selection in each generation.
Mietje thinks this theory is most likely. “Man had reasons enough to tame wolves and bring them into the human camp.” she says. “Wolves played a part in rituals, their fur provided warm clothing, their teeth were used as jewelry … After the domestication they were even put to work as pack animals. Dead dogs – and occasionally wolves as well – were sometimes buried in graves, which indicates that man considered them to be important animals.”
Pierced wolf teeth as jewelry from the cave of Goyet (Namur) - photo W. Miseur, RBINS
The second hypothesis supposes that wolves followed man and ate the food that was left behind. The least aggressive and scared wolves possibly underwent some kind of “self domestication”, and stayed with the humans. Mietje thinks this theory is not very likely. “Prehistoric humans were hunters-gatherers, and they probably had too few leftovers that could serve as food for packs of wolves. And wolves that freely followed humans would have probably been chased away by other packs defending their territory. Under these circumstances, self-domestication does not seem to have been a possibility.”
The wolf was an important animal for prehistoric man.
Mietje researches when the taming of wolves began. “Until now, archeologists assumed that the domestication took place about 14,000 years ago, at the end of the last glacial period.” she says. “But in the Chauvet-cave in France footprints were found of a canine walking alongside a child. It turned out that they were 26,000 years old. So maybe the domestication occurred much sooner than had been assumed.”