New Project Looks to Find When and How Dogs and People Became BFFs

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Despite spending a few millennia as BFFs, no one is quite sure how the relationship between dogs and humans began. A new project at the University of Oxford hopes to gather a vast database of ancient DNA samples and skeletal remains to find out when dogs exited the packs of prehistoric wolves to try their luck alongside human companions.

According to The New York Times, Dr. Greger Larson, a biologist in Oxford’s archaeology department, has solicited samples, data, and input from nearly every prominent researcher in dog genetics for the massive project, funded with $2.5 million from the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and the European Research Council. He hopes the endeavor begins producing research papers this year.

Larson (who’s also charted man’s storied bond with chickens) says dog genetics are a “tomato soup” of murky ingredients. It’s assumed that dogs descended from wolves about 30,000 years ago, but centuries of human meddling through results-driven breeding, and the interbreeding between wolves and dogs, have made it difficult for researchers to determine exactly why, when, and where this all happened. The hope is that DNA and skull remains might be able to reveal some “missing link” between dogs and wolves.

Archeological evidence shows that humans were burying dogs along with their own dead 14,000 years ago, implying a close relationship. There are currently two theories as to how domestication began: People captured wolf cubs and raised them as pets, or wolf packs began scavenging at human settlements and developed a parasitic relationship with people. Once select wolves realized that displaying sad eyes was an easier way to get a bit of caribou carcass than duking it out with another beast, the road to dog pants was paved.

As for why he’s tracking down the starting point of the human/dog bond, Larson says that it can tell us a lot about that stage of human development, adding, “Maybe dog domestication on some level kicks off this whole change in the way that humans are involved and responding to and interacting with their environment.”

[h/t: New York Times]