The First Domesticated Dogs

Tame canids appear throughout human history—but we still have only a vague idea of when the first domesticated dogs became distinct from wolves.

| June 2015

  • Wolves
    Wolves may have been the progenitors of the first domesticated dogs, although dogs and wolves have since diverged greatly from one another.
    Photo by Fotolia/Derek R. Audette
  • The Intimate Bond
    Brian Fagan presents an in-depth analysis of six truly transformative human-animal relationships in “The Intimate Bond,” from domestic dogs and cats to horses, donkeys and camels. Entire civilizations have risen and fallen upon the curious bond we share with our fellow fauna; Fagan reveals the profound influence animals have exercised on human history with care and penetrating insight.
    Cover courtesy Bloomsbury

  • Wolves
  • The Intimate Bond

The Intimate Bond, (Bloomsbury, 2015) by Brian Fagan, offers an investigation of how our habits and our very way of life were considerably and irreversibly altered by our intimate bond with animals. From the first wolf who wandered into our prehistoric ancestors’ camp and found companionship, to the industrial age when some animals became commodities and others nurtured pets, Fagan explores the profound influence animals have had on human history. The following excerpt is from chapter 3, “Cherished Companions.”

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Denmark, spring, 8000 BCE. The hunter crouches among the dense reeds, bow at the ready, and arrow hooked to the string. A pile of arrows lies to his right, ready for use. He watches the geese as they rest on the placid waters of the shallow lake after their arduous journey from the south. Feet in the mud, he remains motionless, waiting for some geese to swim within arrow’s range. To his right, his black-and-brown hunting dog lies quietly, and completely still, panting gently, alert. Half a dozen ducks paddle slowly close to shore. Slowly, deliberately, the man draws his bow and takes aim. The dog remains absolutely still, watching intently. Zip, zip . . . the hunter releases once, grabs another arrow and shoots again. The startled birds take to the air, but two struggle in the water, impaled by razor-sharp flint-tipped arrows. A soft command: the dog points, then slips into the water. He swims to the struggling fowl, grabs them one by one, and carries them to shore. The hunter quickly wrings their necks and puts them in a netting bag. His dog wags his tail and looks up expectantly. A pat on the head, and maybe a scrap of food, then back to the hunt as the hunter moves slowly to a new vantage point in quest of more prey. Hours later, dog and master return to camp, the last bird gripped firmly in canine jaws.

Wolves and humans got together in many locations, some bitterly cold, others much warmer. Despite the growing, if incomplete, evidence for wolf-dogs, we still do not know precisely when people fully tamed canines. One certainly could not describe wolf-dogs as fully domesticated—if they existed at all.

What evidence do we have for actual dogs? The earliest unquestionable dog came to light in the grave of a fifty-year-old man and a twenty- to twenty-five-year-old woman unearthed at Bonn-Oberkassel, Germany, by quarrymen’s picks in 1914. The quarrymen shattered most of the bones before archaeologists investigated the burial with methods that were extremely crude by modern standards. Unfortunately, only a jaw fragment of the fourteen-thousand-year-old beast survives.

When I excavate a burial, I always wonder what events surrounded the interment, whether animal or human. Did the deceased perish from old age, from chronic disease, or a war wound? Was he loved or held in contempt? Did she have children and what rituals surrounded her passing? Many of these questions can be teased from the bones (from telltale signs of injuries caused by hard work, or of serious infections), and from DNA. The Bonn-Oberkassel burial is particularly fascinating, because the earliest-known dog in the world lay with two people, perhaps its master and mistress.

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