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New Research Suggests Friendship Between Man And Dogs Is Older Than Dirt

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- 'The dog has been esteemed and loved by all the people on earth and he has deserved this affection for he renders services that have made him man's best friend.' Alfred Barbou

Just exactly when dogs became 'man's best friend' is uncertain but new research suggests it happened a lot longer ago than scientists previously believed, when much of the earth was still covered with ice. Early humans may even have used dogs for hunting during the last Ice Age.

Researchers have recovered the remains of an 35,000-year-old wolf in Russia's Taymyr Peninsula. They say the so-called Taimyr wolf's genome is closely related to the ancestor of the modern-day, domestic dogs and wolves. The genetic comparisons have forced them to recalibrate the wolf-dog split, or divergence that gave rise to 'man's best friend' from 11,000 to 16,000 years ago, to sometime between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago.

The findings were published in Current Biology.

The new data places the genetic separation of wolves and dogs well before The Last Glacial Maximum, when vast sheets of ice covered the Earth.

Interestingly, the modern breeds most closely related to the Taimyr wolf are the Northern Eurasian breeds like the Finnish Spitz, the Chinese Shar-Pei, the Greenland Sledge Dog, and the Siberian Husky.

Siberian Huskies rest on December 15, 20
Siberian Huskies at rest. (OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Scientists believe the "genetic legacy" is explained "either by a very early presence of dogs in northern Eurasia or by the genetic legacy of the Taimyr individual being preserved in northern wolf populations until the arrival of dogs at high latitudes."

This new findings suggest dogs were domesticated well before humans started farming. Theories abound as to exactly when, though.

Robert Wayne, an evolutionary geneticist at UCLA told the science journal Nature, he believes humans domesticated dogs while migrating to Europe and Asia 40,000 years ago. Others posit dogs helped hunters during the Ice Age. Anthropologist Pat Shipman writes that dogs helped humans compete with Neanderthals.

Whenever it occurred, the special bond between humans and dogs is certain, hence the saying 'dogs are man's best friend.' Wayne agrees.

"There's something there we don't quite understand yet," he says. "Dogs were fundamentally important to humans in a way that other animals weren't."

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