Was the domestication of cats and dogs inevitable?


It’s one of the greatest mysteries of domestication: Where exactly did dogs come from? As unbelievable as it may seem, scientists still aren’t sure what part of the world ancient wolves took those first tentative steps on the path to becoming man’s oldest friend.

Last year, I wrote about a huge new effort to solve the mystery of canine domestication once and for all. Now, it appears that this effort is starting to pay dividends. In an article I wrote this week for Science, researchers are reporting that the two most popular theories of where dogs originated–Asia and Europe–may both be correct. Dogs, it seems, may have evolved in Asia more than 14,000 years ago, and then a subset of these animals migrated west (likely with people), where they met dogs that had already evolved in Europe, perhaps longer than 16,000 years ago.

The findings are preliminary, but if they turn out to be true, they would go a long way in resolving a debate that has roiled the canine origins community for years. But what I find most fascinating is that work comes on the heels of study published in January that suggested that cats too were domesticated twice. We tend to think of domestication–especially early domestication–as a fluke event that was so improbable that it only happened once for each species in early human history. But these new studies suggest that perhaps these domestication events weren’t such a fluke after all.

Perhaps the rise of mankind was destined to give rise to certain domesticated animals. Hunter-gatherers needed a hunting companion that could also protect their campsite at night–and perhaps help them out-compete their Neandertal neighbors–and the dog was born. Early farmers needed a hunter to take care of their rodent problem–and a companion that could pretty much take care of itself–and the cat was born.

Sure, this is all probably a bit simplistic. Evolution, and domestication in particular, tends to be a lot more messy than we’d like to believe. But I do like the idea that we were somehow destined to end up with cats and dogs. Who knows? Maybe dogs and cats were domesticated lots of times, and just one or two of those times stuck. But we kept trying–and they kept trying–because some way, some how, we always knew that we’d be better off with them.

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