Cats and dogs have been popular house pets for thousands of years. Billions of families have shared their home with these animals and develop strong, emotional bonds with them, going so far as to having their beloved pets buried with them upon death. But both of these very domesticated animals were not always so tame. Dogs are descended from wolves and cats find their ancestry in wild cat species. Though we know that these animals have been precious to humans for thousands of years, recent studies have called into question exactly how long they have been domesticated. This sample essay will examine how they became that way, and where their domestication took place.
The domestication of dogs
It is believed that before humans milked cows or herded goats, the kept dogs as pets. Previous studies placed dog domestication at approximately fifteen thousand years ago, when people started burying dogs, sometimes with humans. New evidence, however, supports the idea that humans began domesticating dogs tens of thousands of years before that. This evidence comes in the form of a bone found on the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. The bone was from an ancient wolf and was over thirty-five thousand years old. Reports read,
“Examining the animal’s mitochondrial and nuclear DNA and comparing them to genomes of modern wolves and dogs, the team surmised that there must have been a three-way split among the Taimyr, dog, and wolf lineages.” (Feddenden).
Taimyr wolves are the last known common ancestor of dogs and wolves and they later became extinct. Researchers believe, too, that it is likely that domestication of dogs took place even sooner than physical evidence like teeth and bones can tell us because dogs probably did not start to differ from wolves in this way until more recently.
Other evidence to support the earlier domestication of dogs includes twenty-six-thousand-year-old preserved footprints found in an ancient cave in France. The footprints are that of a boy, approximately ten years in age, which were found alongside those of a large canid. Scientists know that the canid footprints are that of a dog rather than a wolf because of the shortened middle to in relation to the pad of its foot. Using soot left behind from the torch the child was carrying, the footprints were dated to twenty-six thousand years ago.
The second oldest piece of evidence dates back to fifteen thousand years ago. Various bones and DNA samples taken from ancient fossils and burials sites have been dated between a few thousand years to over ten thousand years old. A mummified dog carcass was found in Siberia, dating back to more than twelve thousand years ago, was confirmed by DNA analysis to have been an early dog (Liesowska). Burial sites have been found in which the dog carcasses were decorated as if the dogs had held a place of honor, while others are simply buried with their families.
Dogs are evolved from ancient wolves. It was once thought that wolves were sometimes taken as puppies by hunters to be raised as pets, becoming more and more domesticated with each generation. Though this explanation is oversimplified, it captures, in essence, the way that people actively bred wolves to become the dogs we know today as pets.
Today, though, scientists believe there may be another, more probably explanation. Wolves, even as puppies, are hard to tame, and many believe that it is more plausible that dogs domesticated themselves (Gorman). Instead, those of this school of thought believe that some wolves were just less timid around humans and gradually evolved to become tamer.
While dog owners often praise their pets for their love and loyalty, some researchers doubt that dogs are capable of feeling sick emotions. More likely, they believe, is the thought that dogs operate on instincts they have evolved from being coddled as pets; it is easier to be someone’s pet than to live in the wild. Raymond Coppinger, biology professor at Hampshire College, proposed that
“the domestic house dog may have evolved into a parasite.” (Gorman).
Those who agree with him point out that while there are approximately one billion dogs in the world, only about twenty-five percent of them are pets (Gorman). The rest of them are wild, living outside, scavenging for food, and spread rabies between species. While they are friendly when they want to be fed, they certainly cannot be described as ‘man’s best friend’.
Further supporting the theory for naturally tamer wolves evolving to be even tamer, there are several ways in which wolves and dogs are very different. While dogs are able to comfortably eat in front of humans, wolves are not as at ease. Dogs have shorter snouts and wider skulls than wolves. Wolves are known for mating for life and fathers play an active role in caring for their young (Gorman). In contrast, dogs are rather promiscuous and the males tend to pay little to no attention to their puppies. Despite these differences, they easily interbreed and many believe that they are not two different species.
Regardless of how they came to be domesticated, dogs have undoubtedly found their way into the hearts of humans. Their relationships with people are unlike any other interspecies relationship. Dogs have the ability to read human gestures better than our closest relatives; bonobos and chimpanzees (Hare and Woods). The way that dogs pay attention to their human companions is incredibly similar to the way human infants watch their parents. Because of this ability to understand us, dogs make excellent hunting partners. Moose hunters in mountainous areas are 56% more successful when they are accompanied by hunting dogs, and tribes in both Nicaragua and the Congo are dependent upon dogs for their hunts (Hare and Woods). Dogs also serve as protectors, barking to alert us to strangers and defending their humans from danger.
The domestication of cats
Modern cats are descended from five separate wild cats; the Sardinian wildcat, the sub-Saharan African wildcat, the Chinese desert cat, the Central Asian wildcat, and the European wildcat (Hirst). All five wild cats are subspecies of F. silvestris. Like dogs, it is difficult to determine exactly when cats became domesticated. First, it is difficult because domesticated cats are able to and interbreed with their feral cousins, as they often do. Second, it can be hard to pinpoint an exact point of domestication because the primary indicator of animal domestication if sociability and cats are fickle with their interactions and affections (Hirst).
Because of these difficulties, scientists usually identify domestic cats by their smaller size compared to their feral counterparts, their presence outside of their normal geographical range, whether they are given burials, and whether or not they wear collars. Archaeologists believe that wild cats may have been attracted to human camps because of the rodents that inevitably find their way to agricultural stores and that people either tolerated their presence or encouraged them to guard against the tiny thieves.
The oldest evidence of domesticated cats has been found on the island of Cyprus, where cats were only one of several species introduced to the area around 7500 BC. Purposeful cat burials were found buried near humans around this time (Hirst). Statues have been found of humans holding cats that date back nine thousand years. In 2014, scientists analyzed teeth and bones from a cat found on a Chinese settlement site that dated back fifty-three hundred years. The remains of the cat studied by the research team revealed that the animal had fed on rodents, grains, and scraps of human food (Jabr).
Until very recently, it was widely believed that cats became domesticated after the Egyptian civilization played its role in the process. There are Egyptian tombs containing mummified cats. Some of these cats show previously broken bones that had been healed prior to death, suggesting domestication (Hirst). The very first image of a cat wearing a collar was found on a tomb from a little over two thousand BC. Since around that time, cats have appeared regularly in Egyptian art and as mummies. They are the most frequently mummified animal in Egypt.
More recent research, though, suggests that the domestication of cats took place in the Fertile Crescent about ten thousand years ago. This makes sense given the part that cats play as the predator to grain-eating prey. It seems that cats, like dogs, may have been simply opportunistic animals that evolved to take advantage of civilization and the luxuries it offered (Jabr). Eventually, it is believed, people made the shift from tolerating cats to providing them with their own food and warm places to sleep. Though the exact reason is unknown, many point to the cat’s tendency towards tameness and its innate faunal charm.
Regardless of when cats were truly domesticated, there is DNA evidence that proves their domestication. When compared to the genomes of wild cats, the genomes of domestic cats show genes linked to memory, stimulus-rewarding, and fear-conditioning, all of which are necessary to the evolution of tameness (Fang). These genes are necessary because to become domesticated, cats must remember that desirable behavior comes with rewards and must be able to overcome fear of new people or places.
Other genetic variations possessed by domestic cats include genes involved in increased visual and auditory acuity, fat metabolism, and a sense of smell that differs from that of a dog. In order to digest their hypercarnivorous diets, cats require genes for breaking down these foods. In addition, cats can hear in the ultrasonic range and are much more active during dawn and dusk. Domesticated cats show an evolved low light vision and an expanded hearing range. Lastly, cats do not rely on smell to hunt as much as dogs do. Instead, they have more genes related to smelling pheromones from cats of the opposite sex (Fang). Domesticated cats have a less prevalent expression of this gene.
While many dogs, horses, and livestock breeds are hundreds of years old, it is only more recently that cat breeds have been diversified. The first documented cat show was not held until 1871 in London and the majority of modern cat breeds have only emerged within the last fifty years or so (Jabr). A study done by the Washington University in St. Louis sought to study the modern domesticated cat’s relationship with its ancestors. The researchers examined DNA from a number of wild and domestic cats. The study confirmed that cats have genetically diverged from their wild ancestors much less than dogs have from wolves (Jabr). They retain many of the original feline characteristics, including their sharp hunting skills, which make them much more likely to survive alone outside than a dog would.
Despite many years of research and countless studies, it is still rather difficult to pin down the origin of the domestication of dogs and cats. Recent research has called into question the previously excepted method and timeline of pet domestication, which effects the location in which it took place. What we do know, though, is that these animals have had a profound effect on the human race. Billions of people have sought comfort from a pet dog or cat and we develop strong emotional ties and connections to the animals with which we share our home and our hearts.
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Fessenden, Marissa. “Humans May Have Domesticated Dogs Tens of Thousands of Years Earlier Than Thought.” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Magazine, 22 May 2015. Web. 25 May 2016.
Gorman, James. “The Big Search to Find Out Where Dogs Come From.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 18 Jan. 2016. Web. 25 May 2016.
Jabr, Ferris. “Are Cats Domesticated?” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 23 Oct. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016.
Hare, Brian and Woods, Vanessa. “Opinion: We Didn’t Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 3 Mar. 2013. Web. 25 May 2016.
Hirst, K. Kris. “Cat History and Domestication.” About Archaeology. About.com, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016.
Liesowska, Anna. “Autopsy carried out in Far East on world’s oldest dog mummified by ice.” The Siberian Times. The Siberian Times, 18 June 2015. Web. 25 May 2015.