A Dog’s Life
Dogs may be man’s best friend today but this was not always the case. Exactly when and how dogs were domesticated from wolves has long been the subject of controversy but new finds from an archaeological site in the Czech Republic may offer a clue.
Around 30,000 years ago, Europe was inhabited by a group today often referred to as the Gravettian people, named after the La Gravette site in France where their tools were first found. Although they lived across Europe, they were united by their production of identical tools and beautifully carved statues known as ‘Venus’ figurines. These people relied heavily on mammoths for both food and shelter, building their houses from their bones and using their ivory to carve their figurines. However, it was unclear whether these humans were actively hunting mammoths or just scavenging carcasses.
This new study by the University of Tübingen, Germany, analysed isotopes in the bones of Gravettian humans, as well as other large predators living in the same area around the exceptionally preserved prehistoric site of Předmostíl near Brno in the Czech Republic. Using nitrogen and carbon isotopes, the proportions of which vary depending on diet, the researchers were able to find out what prey each predator was eating. For humans there was evidence of a very high proportion of mammoth meat in the diet while other local predators, including bears and wolverines, were also eating some mammoth. This suggested that these predators were themselves scavenging human kill sites, rather than the other way around. However, one set of bones in particular produced an interesting result. With the human remains were found the bones of animals which the scientists interpreted as palaeolithic dogs. Instead of producing results similar to the humans, it was found that the ‘dogs’ were eating hardly any mammoth at all. They seemed to live mainly on reindeer meat, suggesting that these dogs were in some way restrained by humans and not free to scavenge. This is the earliest, strong evidence of true domestication rather than simply wolves cohabiting with humans.
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