UPDATE: Ancient DNA suggests European hunters tamed the first dogs

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Every dog has its day, and scientists are trying to figure out when that first day happened.

At some point in ancient history humans developed close relationships with four-legged creatures that would have otherwise been wild, fierce wolves.

A new study in the journal Science argues that the domestication of dogs happened between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago in Europe. They say European hunter-gatherer cultures were responsible for turning lupine foes into best friends, long before humans developed agriculture.

It’s a conclusion that barks up a controversial tree. The study goes against the idea wolves were domesticated when they wandered over to human agricultural settlements, lured by food. The study also contradicts previous research suggesting that dog domestication may have first happened in the Middle East or East Asia.

“There were many aspects in this study that we didn’t expect,” said Olaf Thalmann, researcher at Finland’s University of Turku, who led the study. Chief among the surprises: the European origin of dog domestication.

Millennia-old canine DNA has thrown a new twist into the debate over the origin of dogs — supporting the view that European hunter-gatherers were the first to domesticate the species.

The focus on ancient DNA provides “a new perspective on dog origins,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, said in a Science interview.

“Really to our surprise, it suggests that the origin of modern dogs was from Europe, not from the Middle East or east Asia — and that it occurred about 20,000 years ago,” said Wayne, who is the senior author of a study published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

The findings open up a new way to address the key questions surrounding the origins of “man’s best friend”: When, where and how did humans domesticate dogs?

The “when” varies from 12,000 to more than 30,000 years ago. Scientists have pointed to the Middle East, Africa, Eurasia and east Asia as the “where.” And there are two leading scenarios for the “how”: Some favor the view that wolves co-evolved with humans to give rise to ancient hunting dogs (“Hunter’s Helpers”). Others suggest that dog domestication was facilitated by the rise of agriculture and the resulting heaps of trash that could be scavenged (portraying dogs as “Dumpster Divers”).

The new results support the “Hunter’s Helper” hypothesis.

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