Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Egyptian crypt aids search for origin of dogs

One of the most charming and enjoyable books about dogs is Man Meets Dog by Konrad Lorenz, who was one of the founders of the field of ethology, or the scientific study of animal behavior. This book popularized ethology but unfortunately one of Lorenz's other theories, that dogs were descended from jackals, has been found by more recent scientific work to be wrong. Dogs are most probably descended from wolves, which seems mind-boggling if we look at the tremendous variety of dog breeds. How did they all come about?

It is in this context that the rediscovery of a crypt for dog bones in Saqqara, Egypt is significant. These animals were sacrificed upon the death of their owners, and were entombed underground, sometimes mummified. Although ancient Egyptians were known for their love of cats, there was a significant interest in dogs and dog-breeding among them too. This crypt therefore preserves for us, like a snapshot in time several millennia ago, a cross-section of dog variation in the course of their domestication that may give some insight into the evolution of modern breeds, and their origin from wolves.

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