Although there is much contention about the exact dates and origins of the world’s first dogs, evidence has consistently supported the claim that the dog-man connection is at least 15,000 years old. Emerging science continues to push the dates back as far as 40,000 years ago, and geneticists admit that the mystery of the first dogs is far from solved. One thing is for sure: The original primitive dogs emerged and thrived because of the presence of mankind, and mankind thrived in turn as a result.
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have told the story of this evolutionary romance in primitive artwork and other tributes to the first canine companions. Cave paintings from 6000 BC depict the distinct shape of the first pariah-like (those original feral and scavenging opportunists) Basenji dogs, with their pricked ears and curly tails. Egyptian relics and drawings of these “tesem” (Ancient Egyptian for “hunting dog”) dogs date back to the Protodynastic Period in Egypt (around 3000 BC) and show these animals hunting alongside humans. Dogs in art seem to be about as old as art itself.
One may wonder if dogs have been around as long as we humans have. With archaeologists continuing to unearth fossils that place dogs at our side thousands of years earlier than previously thought, we can imagine we will one day discover that man’s best friend has been here all along for our own 200,000-year journey as a species.
In questioning geographical origins of the world’s first natural dogs, then, it’s no surprise that the evidence indicates that the oldest of these canines arose in the same region of the world as the first humans. The old-world continents of Africa and Asia are home to the same breeds of primitive dogs that split as genetically distinct from wolves. Dogs such as the Basenji from Africa, Israel’s Canaan Dog, and the Inuit dogs from which breeds like the Siberian Husky arose, for example, are a mere degree of divergence from their wild ancestors compared to the hundreds of modern breeds we have today.
These kinds of natural dogs were originally landraces—populations of canines evolving naturally in a given region without human control of breeding. These natural breeds lived alongside primitive populations of humans, taking advantage of what we had to offer (often in exchange for what benefit they could provide to us). Natural pressures, as well as human practices of favoring given dogs or culling undesired others from their local populations, selected for those best suited to the environments and tasks at hand.
All of these original dogs were, at heart, instinctive hunters and scavengers concerned with the protection of territory. These traits were useful when combined with their reduced fear and aggression regarding humans.
As humans migrated out of Africa, across Asia into northern regions, and westward into ancient Phoenicia, some traits worked better than others. These natural dogs formed the basis for other dog breeds that would ultimately emerge over the course of the next 15,000-plus years, as these early hunters, herders, and protectors were developed and fine-tuned into distinct genetic working groups.
Where these breeds of natural dogs have been preserved, so has a piece of history. While they may at times feel out of place in the twenty-first century, these incredible dogs deserve a reverence for their more primitive ancestry as well as the great role they played in the history of early man and his fight for survival in an often harsh world.