Teeth wear reveals: dogs already domesticated during the last Ice Age




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Palaeolithic dog from Předmostí with a bone fragment between its teeth, from the collections of the Moravian Museum, Brno (Czech Republic). Likely the bone was inserted upon the death of the animal in the context of a ritual. (Photo: M. Germonpré, RBINS)
Teeth wear reveals: dogs already domesticated during the last Ice Age
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Reinout Verbeke

Wear marks on 28,500-year-old teeth indicate dogs were already domesticated by hunter-gatherers during the last Ice Age. Dogs (domesticated wolves) were given harder food such as bones, while wild wolves were eating softer food.

When did humans tame wolves? Palaeontologists and geneticists are arguing for years about the answer. Estimates go from 15,000 to 40,000 years ago. The last estimate is partly due to a Belgian discovery: the Goyet dog. According to cranial features, the 36,000-year-old skull found in 1860 in the Goyet cave (near Namur) could be from a dog. And thus be the oldest dog in the world. But not all scientists agree.

Dental traces

A new research technology called ‘dental microwear texture analysis’ suggests an early domestication. Even before the cold peak of the last glacial period, around 23,000 years ago, humans already domesticated wolves.

American scientists meticulously examined the wear marks on the molars of 19 mandibles of dogs and wolves excavated in Předmostí in the Czech Republic. In a previous study palaeontologist Mietje Germonpré (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) classified these fossils as from wolves and dogs based on their morphology. Dogs have a shorter and more robust mandible better adapted to gnaw on harder food. The analysis of wear marks on the molars – the second molar, to be precise – demonstrates the existence of two groups. The molars of dogs have deeper grooves, which is the pattern of animals gnawing on harder food such as bones. As for wolves, their teeth have less wear marks.

According to researchers, this distinct diet could be related to domestication. Germonpré, who took part in this study, explains this difference: ‘Dogs were living with humans and were fed with food leftovers of reindeer and musk oxen, mostly bones and carcasses. But wolves were living further away from humans and were often scavenging on corpses of mammoths and horses, feeding on meat and fat.’

‘The presence of domesticated wolves in the Czech Republic 28,500 years ago, even before the cold peak of the last glacial period, makes the idea of “the Goyet dog” being an early dog more plausible.’

The study was published in Journal of Archaeological Sciences.

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