It’s true: Dogs have been man’s best friend for a really, really long time.

By Debra Steilen
February 09, 2021
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Chances are your pupper goes with you nearly everywhere—even when you travel. And you probably won't be surprised to learn that dogs have been hanging out with people for thousands of years—despite the complete lack of squeaky toys in prehistoric times. In fact, friendly canines likely accompanied the first people to migrate to the New World from East Asia more than 15,000 years ago, according to a new study recently reported by CNN.

But even that long ago the bonds between people and pooches weren't new. In fact, dogs and people first cozied up to each other more than 23,000 years ago in Siberia, says lead study author and archaeologist Angela Perri, PhD. As a research fellow in Durham University's Department of Archaeology in the U.K., Perri studies the early relationships between humans, animals, climate, and landscapes. So it's no surprise that she posed this question to CNN on behalf of curious dog owners: "What is this animal and how did it go from a wild predator to [being] curled up next to my bed?"

To answer that question, Perri's team studied the genetic makeup of ancient dog remains to figure out when wolves first crept near campfires for warmth and food. There's no single answer, she said, but the freezing climactic conditions during that ancient time probably brought wolves and humans closer together—simply for survival's sake. After all, the two species hunted the same prey.

Man and dog touch noses
Credit: bobex73 / Adobe Stock

"Wolves likely learned that scavenging from humans regularly was an easy, free meal, while humans allowed this to happen so long as wolves were not aggressive or threatening," Perri told CNN.

Early canines weren't freeloaders, though; evidence shows that some of them may have been used by humans to help transport items or to tap as emergency sources of food and fur, according to Perri. Science Daily points out that ancient dogs also may have been valued for protection, companionship, and their ability to help with the hunt.

Today's dogs—from Yorkies to Irish wolfhounds—resemble those prehistoric pooches in their ability to provide companionship, protection, and hunting prowess. But they also display a whole host of different characteristics, including colors and fur types, as a result of selective breeding, says Jeff Kidd, PhD, associate professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Kidd, who was not involved with Perri's study, told CNN that he isn't surprised people brought their dogs with them when they migrated to the Americas. "If you and your entire community [were] going on a journey across the land, wouldn't you bring along your dog?" Kidd asked.

Perri's next project will be searching for ancient dog bones in Siberia, she told CNN. (It has been more than 100 years since the earliest confirmed dog bones were found in Germany.) She says she anticipates that examining these Siberian bones will provide even more evidence about how dogs and people became so closely intertwined.