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The story that binds us to man's best friend is still full of mysteries to unravel. When it comes to the domestication of dogs, the scientific community is divided on where this process may have happened for the first time, and when it started. On one point, however, it is now becoming clear: that is how the man and the dog became friends.

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An article published on the Science website summarizes the latest findings on the subject. For many decades it was believed that the first dogs entered human history when our ancestors decided to bring wolf cubs into their camps, feeding and raising them.

Gradual metamorphosis. The hypothesis, formulated in 1907 by the British scientist Francis Galton, did not however take into account the fact that domestication is a process that requires hundreds, if not thousands of years. Despite the care, those wolf cubs would inevitably reaffirm themselves in their nature. How was the special bond between man and dog born?

Opposite initiative. Today the experts seem to prevail for the hypothesis of self-domestication. The first men left piles of carcasses of animal bones at the edge of their settlements: a booty that was certainly meant to tempt the more daring wolves, able to approach the man without fear.

the first contact. These well-fed specimens lived longer and produced more puppies. From generation to generation, courage became a successful evolutionary trait, which led some wolves to come to eat from the hand of man. It was at this point that we began a more active phase of domestication: the best known wolves were integrated into human settlements and used as guardians, hunting companions, shepherds.

Image Faithful companion and support since ancient times: a dog accompanies a caravan on a salt road, in Tibet. | Kazuyoshi Nomachi / Corbis

Bones that speak. A study by the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) conducted in collaboration with museums, universities and private collections from around the world has made it possible to compare hundreds of ancient skeletons of wolves and dogs, revealing some indications of domestication in dog bones. For example, the flattening of the tips of the dorsal vertebrae of dogs, which suggests that the animals carried loads on their backs. Or again, the lack of pairs of molars in the lower jaw, perhaps linked to the use of bridles with wolf-dogs with towing tasks.

Who finds a friend … This form of help turned out to be crucial for the survival of our ancestors. And the bond with the dogs only strengthened further. A Japanese study published just recently in Science reveals the definitive weapon that dogs used to make breaches in human hearts: oxytocin.

Image Eternal friendship: human and canine skeletons found in a house 12 thousand years ago, in Israel. | The Upper Galilee Museum of Prehistory

A look that speaks. According to Takefumi Kikusui, an ethologist at the University of Azabu in Sagamihara, Japan, dogs would have succeeded in adopting a mechanism typical of the bond between mothers and children: that by which, fixing itself in the eyes, the reciprocal production of oxytocin, a hormone, is stimulated which strengthens mutual trust and empathy and helps to understand each other even in the absence of verbal communication. This ability would have helped the dogs to bond with human beings, and it would be one of the reasons that pushes us to define them still today an integral part of the family.

And the history of the domestication of dogs, the scientists conclude, reveals much more than the simple origin of these animals: it tells the most complex picture of the origin of human civilization and social intelligence.