The discovery of a canine bone that reignites the debate


An ancient dog bone found in a cave in northern Spain has just been dated by scientists to 17,000 years ago. These are the oldest dog remains found so far in Europe, with important implications for the history of the origins of domestication (as opposed to domestication*) of canids. Ancient fossil remains of a wolf closest to the dog as we know it today, 11,000-12,000 years ago, but the origin of the relationship between the two species is much further back in time, between 30,000 and 36,000 years ago


No one knows for sure how the relationship between humans and animals began, as wolves are very independent and can be quite aggressive; the main hypothesis is the mutualistic relationship: the wolves showed themselves more docile towards the people who gave them leftover food, consequently starting to accompany them on hunting trips and to guard them. Over time, these more docile individuals were selected for, resulting in increasingly less aggressive individuals that moved in with hunter-gatherer communities.

An ancient bone, the humerus to be exact, brought to light for the first time in 1977 in a cave of Eralla, in the Basque Country in Spain, is further complicating the story of the domestication of canids, partially answering some old questions and raising at the same time new doubts. To try to clarify a group of geneticists and anthropologists of the University of the Basque Country in Spain, who used a combination of radiocarbon dating and genetic and morphological analyzes which confirmed the identification of this specimen as Canis lupus familiaris , therefore a domestic dog and not a gray wolf ( Canis lupus)  or dhole ( Cuon alpinus, the Asiatic wild dog).

Dating of the bone (performed by carbon-14 method and particle accelerator mass spectrometry) shows that the remains date to the Magdalenian period and making it the Erralla dog, the oldest domesticated dog remains ever found in Europe or elsewhere, for now.


Careful study of the shape of the bone suggests that Erralla’s dog is not very different from current domestic dogs. However, genetic analysis shows that Erralla’s dog shares the same mitochondrial lineage as other Magdalenian dogs found in France or Spain. Based on this mitochondrial information, the researchers speculate that domestic dogs first appeared around 22,000 years ago , right at the height of the last ice age. This means that even older “family” dogs are expected to be found.


“In conclusion, the data analyzed so far indicate that, during the Magdalenian, the domestic dog was part of western European hunter-gatherer groups. The Erralla dog is one of the oldest specimens identified as Canis lupus familiaris and shares mitochondrial lineage C with the Magdalenian dogs analyzed so far. These results demonstrate that this genetic group has existed in Europe since at least the Early Magdalenian, and lead us to consider a possible earlier wolf domestication than proposed so far , at least in Western Europe,” conclude the researchers in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

  • The domestic dog that lived ∼17,000 years ago in the Lower Magdalenian of Erralla site (Basque Country): A radiometric and genetic analysis. (

Domestication defines a process of thousands of years through which an animal or plant species is made “domesticated” with the combination of various genetic modifications and acts on an entire species Domestication , on the other hand, is much faster and acts on the single individual made docile, but the species to which it belongs remains wild and genetically the same as the domesticated specimen.



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