Humans and dogs first became best friends 30,000 years ago, scientists believe.
Humans and dogs first became best friends 30,000 years ago, claim scientists
New evidence suggests that wolves - the ancestors of domestic dogs - were first tamed by ancient hunter-gatherers
History: Dogs and humans first became best friends about 30,000 years ago, scientists believe. This is the skull of an Ice Age wolf (Image: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences/PA)
They are known as man's best friend.
And according to scientists, the relationship between dogs and humans could have endured for tens of thousands of years.
New research has found that the close bond started in Ice Age Europe between 19,000 and 30,000 years ago.
That was when wolves, ancestors of domestic dogs living today, were first tamed by ancient hunter-gatherers, according to new genetic evidence.
The findings challenge a previous theory that dog domestication happened some 15,000 years ago in eastern Asia, after the introduction of agriculture.
In reality, the history of the bond between dog and man appears to go back much further, to a time when fur-clad humans were living in caves and hunting woolly mammoths.
Scientists used a tried and trusted technique of DNA analysis to establish what populations of wolves were most related to living dogs.
DNA from domestic dogs most closely matched that extracted from the fossil bones of ancient European Ice Age wolves, as well as modern wolves.
There was a little similarity with DNA from wolves, coyotes, and dingos from other parts of the world.
Early tamed wolves may have been trained as hunting dogs or even protected their human masters from predators, the researchers believe.
The Finnish and German team wrote in the journal Science: "Conceivably, proto-dogs might have taken advantage of carcasses left on site by early hunters, assisted in the capture of prey, or provided defense from large competing predators at kills."
Dog domestication of a "large and dangerous carnivore" was likely to have occurred partly by accident, possibly after wolves were attracted to hunter campsites by the smell of fresh meat.
The research contradicts previous thinking that early farming brought wolves sniffing around villages, leading to them forming relationships with humans.
"Dogs were our companions long before we kept goats, sheep or cattle," said Professor Johannes Krause, one of the researchers from Tubingen University in Germany.
The scientists analyzed a particular type of DNA found in mitochondria, tiny power stations within cells that generate energy.
Unlike nuclear DNA found in the hearts of cells, mitochondrial DNA is only inherited from mothers. This makes it a powerful tool in tracing ancestry.
The study included genetic data on 18 prehistoric wolves and other dog-like animals, as well as 77 dogs and 49 wolves from the present day.