March 7, 2013

33,000 years old dog from Altai is directly related to modern dogs

The 33,000 Ka old dog
Ancient mtDNA from the oldest known dog remains (ref. of its discovery in 2011) places it unmistakably in the dog subspecies. This does not just confirm that domestic dogs existed do far back in time but also that modern domestic dogs have such deep origins.

Anna S. Druzhkova et al., Ancient DNA Analysis Affirms the Canid from Altai as a Primitive Dog. PLoS ONE 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057754]


The origin of domestic dogs remains controversial, with genetic data indicating a separation between modern dogs and wolves in the Late Pleistocene. However, only a few dog-like fossils are found prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, and it is widely accepted that the dog domestication predates the beginning of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. In order to evaluate the genetic relationship of one of the oldest dogs, we have isolated ancient DNA from the recently described putative 33,000-year old Pleistocene dog from Altai and analysed 413 nucleotides of the mitochondrial control region. Our analyses reveal that the unique haplotype of the Altai dog is more closely related to modern dogs and prehistoric New World canids than it is to contemporary wolves. Further genetic analyses of ancient canids may reveal a more exact date and centre of domestication.

The Altaian Upper Paleolithic dog belongs to clade A, the most common one among modern dogs, including some pre-Columbian lineages from America and such different breeds as the Siberian Husky, the Irish Setter, the Dachshund, the Toy Poodle or the Pug, just to mention a few (see Supp. Table 2 for a longer list).

The authors also compared the lineage with Upper Paleolithic wolf remains from Altai, which are not closely related. 

Figure 2. Consensus Neighbour Joining tree (1,000 bootstrap steps) built assuming the Tamura-Nei substitution model, the best fit model for the dataset comprising complete mitochondrial genomes from coyotes (Coyotes), wolves (OWW, NWW – Old and New World wolves, respectively) and dogs combined with partial control region sequences from the Altai specimen (Altai dog) and additional prehistoric canids (pre-Columbian dogs, eastern Beringian wolves).
We highlighted all clades containing modern dogs in light blue and enlarged Clade A for better visibility. The position of the Altai specimen is marked with a light blue arrow in the enlargement. Bootstrap values are shown with an asterisk whenever larger than 50.

Surely the presence of four different generic Canis lupus mtDNA clades in modern dogs indicates the domestication of at least four different wolf females, either in the same or different places. 

Gravettian dog with bone (ref)
This finding puts to rest the Neolithic hypothesis of the origin of modern dogs (alleged second domestication, because UP dogs were known) and is at least consistent with my favorite hypothesis of dog domestication in SE Asia (ref 1, ref 2) within the context of the early expansion of Homo sapiens in Eurasia-Australasia in the late Middle Pleistocene, with backflow via South Asia to the West, where dogs may have played a decisive role in the long-term competition with the strong and intelligent Neanderthals.


  1. A little off topic, but what are your view on the Upper Paleolithic Revolution? If you could provide links to previous posts in which you've discussed this issue at length, I'd like that very much, too, thanks.

    1. I haven't really discussed the matter as such. I just consider the UP/LSA as a techno-cultural phase characterized by the use of non-Levallois stone blades. Just one of many convenient divisions in the study of Prehistory.

      I don't even believe in the concept of "modern human behavior" at least not in any way that Prehistory can properly evaluate (songs and dances, myths and stories, for example are intangible). There are cultural evolutionary changes in the "history" of the genus Homo but the same I don't believe that the industrial revolution has substantially changed us, much less a stone knapping method did. Anyhow nowadays it is obvious that symbolic behavior pre-dates the UP by a lot and that it was not exclusive of H. sapiens, at least Neanderthals also had it and dolphins, for example, do today to some extent (they are not crafters but they do dance and play - or elephants recognizing their own deceased ones' remains and somehow meditating about them - or chimps solving puzzles just for the sake of it).

      I don't draw any capricious Biblical sharp line between human and other animals, including early humans. The differences are much more subtle and gradated. We may be very intelligent and socio-culturally complex animals but what makes us humans (emotions, play and such) as opposed to mere rational robots are shared with animals (more with some than with others surely but no sharp line).

      Often I look at humans and I see just monkeys. I look at monkeys and I see humans as well. Not the same, sure, but not so different either.

      And the UP anyhow is no sharp definitory line in any way. We have been growing in complexity but the MP-UP line is not particularly notable in this aspect: before foragers with stone tools, later foragers with stone tools as well.

    2. Addendum: I think that Homo sapiens was almost exactly as today in the times of Omo and Idaltu, nothing has really changed since then in us, just society, culture, economy, technology. But our evolutionary baggage is one of hunter-gatherers.

      Other human species also were evolving at their locations towards larger brains (actually ours is only 20% larger than late H. erectus/ergaster) on average, nothing comparable with what separates both of us from chimpanzees (c. 300% larger) or even the internal variance of our species. The most notable and well known are Neanderthals, who had even larger brains than ours (not all is size however).

      Depending how you measure it, dolphins often have brains larger than ours proportional to size. I wouldn't be surprised if one day we manage to communicate with them and we discover they are as brilliant as we are, at least some species. They are foragers however and their known skills do not include crafting with anything but water bubbles and water sound modulation (in 3D!), no fire obviously either, but all that seems more related to hands and environment than to brain itself.

      We are just brainiac animals in a very particular apogee of our long history, otherwise forager.

      PS- Also late UP seems more revolutionary, at least there seems to be some indication of major demic expansions (in Europe but probably also parts of Africa, etc.) Let's see if I find some links.

    3. The Magdalenian demic "revolution": - and a possible cause: fishing and whale hunting: - (these may or not be Magdalenian but it's clear that in Europe the first fishhook evidence is from the Solutrean and Magdalenian was at least partly linked to sea exploitation).

      Cetacean intelligence at Wikipedia: - convergent evolution of cetacean and human brain:

      There are a lot of things like the beads from Palestine c. 120 Ka ago (later North and South Africa), Neanderthal use of pigments and perforated decorations, construction of wall panels, the recent discovery of some kind of technological "revolution" within Ethiopian Acheulean some 800 Ma... lots of things that I have probably touched in this blog or its predecessor but never really with the focus on a "symbolic behavior revolution" I don't really believe in.

  2. I was also very pleased to hear this! I had also been waiting for evidence on expansion of dog with Homo sapiens in Eurasia in the late Middle Pleistocene. This fits in so well with paleolithic hunter-gatherer needs.

  3. "and is at least consistent with my favorite hypothesis of dog domestication in SE Asia"

    But what about the original distribution of the wolf species? Forested Southeast Asia had a different species of pack-hunting canine, the dhole, that filled the "wolf" niche in that environment.

    Wolf distribution

    Secondly, and an unrelated matter, what does this apparently very important change in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle say about the other hunter-gatherers that didn't domesticate dogs (or any equivalent animal)? Why not? Was it not advantageous in other climates?

    1. Good point. But as you can see in the map wolves existed in the past in all the red areas ("extirpated"), at least. Assuming that the map is correct, either the wolves were taken at the Yangtze area or from South Asia (whose dog genetic diversity has not been researched AFAIK).

      "... what does this apparently very important change in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle say about the other hunter-gatherers that didn't domesticate dogs (or any equivalent animal)? Why not? Was it not advantageous in other climates?"

      I don't know. I tentatively relate this domestication with the expansion of (mainly, not exclusively) Y-DNA MNOPS and mtDNA R, which may have originated between East India and SE Asia (judging on haplogroup diversity and locality). It's possible that this "new technology" (so to say) could have given these peoples some advantage that explains the relative success of these two lineages in spite of their relative secondary time-frame of expansion (i.e. after mtDNA M and Y-DNA F especially).

      With time dogs were adopted by nearly all other populations. But of course there are some exceptions, mostly remote (African hunter-gatherers, Australian ones), which are not too easy to explain. I can imagine that dogs are not too useful in the jungle (because most preys live in trees and dogs can't track them therefore) but that does not explain the Australian or Eastern/Southern African scenarios.


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