Have you noticed how much (more) your loving pet dog seems to appreciate you when meal time comes around? While animals of all varieties enjoy getting access to easy food, scientists have long understood that the changing dietary demands of a species also represents a major variable in evolutionary development. How did man’s best friend, the domesticated dog, earn such lofty status? Could the development of agriculture by our own ancestors help provide an answer?
One of the defining characteristics that separates dogs from their genetic cousins, wolves, relates to their stomachs. The ability of dogs to process starch-rich food, unlike the meat-only diet of wolves, represents a crucial, species-defining development that geneticists believe occurred approximately 15,0000 years ago. Recent archaeological work in Europe and Asia, as reported by the BBC, has suggested that the genetic remains of early dogs (dated between 4000 and 8000 years ago) contain tell-tale signs of a starch-digesting diet and therefore had already long been part of the dog genome. This coincides with the well-known agricultural revolution, in which larger human communities began to adopt agricultural practices rather than relying upon the hunting and gathering consumption patterns of their recent ancestors.
How this relates to the domestication of dogs remains a point of some contention amongst scientists. Some argue this occurred when wolves began following our human ancestors on hunting trips, either because they were invited to do so or because closely following such trips proved to be a useful source of easy food. Others suggest that the adoption of agricultural practices by hunting-gathering peoples created areas that wolves found it worthwhile to spend time around as such population centres inevitably generated waste. This became another useful source of easy food – either directly or in the form of consuming other animals attracted by human scraps. The ability to consume a diet similar to that of humans became a major evolutionary advantage for these early wolf-dogs. Natural selection, it seems, preferred an easy meal.
Either way, wolves that spent more time around these food sources naturally developed closer links with humans. Agriculture thus became a major boost to closer interaction, with domesticated dog as we know it today being the end results. As the old saying goes, it seems that the way to a dog’s heart, like that of humans, might be through its stomach.