Dog days in prehistoric Europe

Scientists have unearthed the earliest evidence of wild hunting dogs in Europe, from more than 1.7 million years ago – and they may have lived alongside early humans.

A team led by Saverio Bartolini-Lucenti from the University of Florence, Italy, found a large canine at the archaeological site of Dmanisi in Georgia. This site is renowned for yielding the earliest direct evidence for humans out of Africa, dating back 1.8 million years.

This new discovery is the first record of a dog from the site, and the remains have been dated back to between 1.77 and 1.76 million years.

Teeth of eurasian hunting dog on black background.
3D scans of the hemimandible fragments of the Eurasian hunting dog, Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides, from Dmanisi (specimen number D6327) superimposed on a mandible of the same species. Credit: S. Bartolini-Lucenti.

By looking at the dog’s dental remains, the researchers found that it likely belonged to a young adult dog weighing about 30 kilograms – the size of a Labrador. The teeth had distinctive characteristics resembling other wild dog species from the same era, showing that it was highly carnivorous, and the researchers matched the remains to the species Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides.

Otherwise known as the Eurasian hunting dog, this species originated in East Africa and is potentially the ancestor of living species such as the endangered Indian dhole and African hunting dog.

“Much fossil evidence suggests that this species was a cooperative pack‑hunter that, unlike other large‑sized canids, was capable of social care toward kin and non‑kin members of its group,” the authors write in their paper, published in Scientific Reports.

While the evolution of these dogs is still largely unknown, they are thought to have originated in Asia and then moved into Europe and Africa somewhere between 1.8 million and 800,000 years ago. This finding is the earliest known instance of these dogs near Europe, showing that the species was on the move by 1.7 million years ago.

This may suggest the ecological conditions favoured migration at the time.

A group of early humans sharing food on grasslands.
A group of Homo erectus sharing food with an old and toothless individual who lived several years without teeth. Credit: Mauricio Antón with the scientific supervision by D. Lordkipanidze and B. Martínez-Navarro.

“Interestingly, its dispersal from Asia to Europe and Africa followed a parallel route to that of hominins, but in the opposite direction,” the authors write.

At this same Dmanisi archaeological site, previous research teams have found the oldest direct evidence of hominins outside of Africa (though slightly earlier artefacts have been found in southern China). This indicates the two species may have shared the location at this time.

The authors note that hominins and wild hunting dogs are the only two mammal species in this era with proven altruistic behaviour towards their group members, which may have been a survival strategy that played a role in their successful migrations.

“The co-occurrence of two highly social species in the same locality around 1.8 Ma…raises interest in the role played by social behaviour and by mutually-beneficial cooperation and reciprocity in the geographic expansion of these species,” they conclude.

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