By Mark Derr. The Overlook Press. $26.95.
If you’re a dog lover who savors history, this ambitious volume will leave you with a feeling of nirvana.
Author of “A Dog’s History of America,” Derr takes the reader on a historical travelogue, tracking researchers’ documentation of the wolf-to-dog (dog-wolves or doglike wolves) sequencing worldwide, yet leaving plenty of uncertainty.
For instance, he emphasizes in the Introduction, that dog remains in Europe ranging from 16,000-30,000 years ago have been identified, firmly establishing Europe as the continent with the oldest dogs on record, “even though no expert believes that dogs originated there.”
Derr carefully cites a wide array of “mixing zones” with wolves and humans, noting each’s role in the early process of domestication. Today, however, genetic surveys undertaken at UCLA by evolutionary biologist Robert K. Wayne promise to answer some questions while posing others in regard to the dog’s origins.
Derr says, “That the Dog is a Wolf modified by nature, wolves and humans is as nearly beyond dispute as an evolutionary line of descent can be. Geneticists, paleontologists, archaeologists, evolutionary biologists and animal behaviorists, who normally agree on little else, have confirmed that finding repeatedly.”
If you’re looking to pinpoint the dog’s origins from the wolf, you won’t find it here, but you will find absorbing and very detailed time capsules with blurred scientific options from 135,000 to 12,000 years ago. Intermixed is a proposed date of 27,000 years ago, based on nuclear DNA from sequencing of the dog genome in recent years.
We may never be able to determine the definitive origin of the dog, however, says Derr, since increasing numbers of geneticists believe that it is necessary to compare DNA from ancient dogs and wolves — as much as possible. “Such DNA,” explains Derr, “is difficult to obtain because it breaks down under natural conditions and is prone to corruption.”
Some of most solid empirical data on the dog’s origins has come from research performed by Wayne’s UCLA laboratory where findings from 921 dogs representing 85 breeds and 225 gray wolves left the scientist concluding that Middle Eastern wolves are the “wild source of most of the diversity in the dog.”
Because both early-day wolves and humans were opportunistic pack hunters, it was inevitable that their efforts would eventually merge, once a trust was established, resulting in each recognizing the other as a kindred spirit, explains Derr.
The author doesn’t overlook the dog’s history in North America from those used by Native Americans to house pets of today. While many of these animals were revered for utilitarian purposes such as herding, hunting and hauling, others were sacrificed for clothes, blankets, medicine and food. Plus, some were offered to the gods in thanks or contrition.
With the increase in purebred dogs and population dynamics in the United States since the end of World War II, the most significant change in the dog has been behavior, contends Kenth Svartberg, a comparative psychologist studying dog behavior at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
So let the historic dog origin debate rage on. Derr’s richly detailed, well-sourced research, however, offers a full plate of choices and razor-sharp analysis to help you connect the dots while not undermining the authenticity of the big picture.