The Archaeology of Dog Domestication

 Human culture cannot be separated from nature. Harris and Ciopolla, champions of emerging archaeological techniques, explain that human culture is influenced by the nature around it and vice versa. (Harris and Ciopolla 2007) The field of Zooarchaeology studies the relationships between humans and animals throughout time. Humans and dogs in particular, have coexisted and bonded in ways that transcend culture. Dogs as domestic pets can be found at archaeological sites throughout the world and spanning eras. By applying archaeological techniques to the remains of dogs, Zooarchaeologists have worked to determine exactly when and where dogs were first domesticated by humans.

A chart showing the evolution of dogs across regions from a common wolf ancestor

The archaeological record of the domestication of dogs has been unclear for much of the modern era. Originally it was thought that there were two independent domestication events. One occured in Europe and one in Asia. However, new technology, such as the emergence of DNA testing has allowed researchers to debunk this theory. Even though all dogs evolved from the Grey Wolf, the genetic difference between eastern and western dogs is what led many to argue that two different domestication events occurred. By testing the DNA of prehistoric dogs found in Germany and Ireland against that of modern European dogs, archaeologists found that the DNA of the prehistoric dogs was very similar to that of the modern European dogs. This directly contradicted previous findings, stating that they weren’t genetically similar. With this new data, Archaeologists were able to determine that dogs were most likely domesticated through a single domestication event. As stated in Nature Magazine, The researchers estimate that dogs and wolves diverged genetically between 36,900 and 41,500 years ago, and that eastern and western dogs split 17,500–23,900 years ago. Because domestication had to have happened between those events, the team puts it somewhere from 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.” (Lallensack 2017) This new study argues that dogs must have been domesticated before the genetic split to account for them being genetically different from wolves. 

A Diagram showing the difference in facial muscles between wolves and dogs

It is also important to note that since the sample size of prehistoric dogs is so small, it is hard to say for certain when and where dogs were first domesticated. Until more diverse data is found and analyzed, this study, while intriguing, does not provide a conclusive answer to the questions of where and when dogs were first domesticated. Researchers have agreed, however, that the process of domesticating dogs was a passive one that is the result of tamer wolves becoming increasingly dependent on humans to survive. This relates back to Harris and Ciopolla’s argument that human culture is dependent on the nature around it and vice versa. The wild wolves slowly became more dependent on humans to survive which led to domesticated animals becoming an integral part of human culture.




Lallensack, Rachael.

2017  Ancient genomes heat up dog domestication debate. Nature (magazine)  July 18 2017., Accessed November 3, 2019.


Harris, Oliver J.T. and Craig Cipolla.

2017  Multi-species Archaeology: People, Plants, and Animals. In: Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium: Introducing Current Perspectives. Routledge. Pp. 152-170.



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Further Reading:

If you want to know more about earlier theories and studies into dog domestication, this article goes into detail about the previous theory of a dual domestication event using data from a 2016 study:


This article uses actual data from dog domestication studies to fact check the TV Show “Alpha”

2 thoughts on “The Archaeology of Dog Domestication

  1. Cool post! I do wonder though, do you think archaeology can be conducted in the same way for both animals and humans? Do we have to change our methods when we’re conducting it on animals? Does conducting archaeology on dogs teach us more about dogs or more about humans?

  2. I think that when conducting archaeology on animals it is important not to change our methods, but to treat their remains with the same respect that we treat human remains. When dealing with animals or any living being, it is important to acknowledge the lives that they lived and not to treat them like objects or specimens. When actually doing archaeology on animals, specifically dogs, I think we learn a fair amount about both humans and dogs, specifically about the codependent relationship between the two that is direct a result of domestication.

    Williams, Howard M.
    2018 Is it Ethical to Display Animals in Archaeological Collections? Archaeodeath (blog) Sept 11 2018. Accessed December 15, 2019.

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