The oldest dogs from France were small, lap-sized canines that lived up to 15,000 years ago, according to new research.
These poodle-sized dogs raise a lot of questions about the earliest domestication of dogs, due to their impressive age and the fact that most other prehistoric pooches were much larger.
"One or many domestication events could have occurred in France and, more generally, in the western part of Europe," Maud Pionnier-Capitan told Discovery News. She led the French project, described in a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
"Eurasian archaeological data plea for multiple and independent domestication processes throughout the Old World," added Pionnier-Capitan, a researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in France, as well as at Claude Bernard Lyon I University.
She and her colleagues analyzed the remains of animals once thought to be dholes, a type of wild canine. The fossils were unearthed at Pont d'Ambon and Montespan in Southwest France and Le Closeau in North France.
Radiocarbon dating and detailed investigations determined that the fossils all belonged to small Upper Paleolithic dogs. These, together with a few other finds, confirm the presence of small dogs in Europe from at least 15,000 to 11,500 years ago.
Pionnier-Capitan believes these dogs had a height below about 17 inches.
"Such sizes are found nowadays in breeds like the standard poodle, beagle or cocker," she said.
The dogs could have warmed cold cavemen laps in the shelters where they were found. They also were probably used as hunting partners.
Additional evidence suggests they weren't off the prehistoric dinner menu either.
"Some of the remains we studied also present some cut marks that imply the animals had been eaten and their fur may have been used," Pionnier-Capitan explained.
It's possible the dogs were domesticated from small wolves. Diet, climate and environmental factors could also help to explain the dogs' diminutive size, according to the researchers.
Another possibility is that the dogs descended from larger dogs domesticated at an even earlier date in Europe.
In 2008, Mietje Germonpre, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, and her team identified what they believe is the world's first known dog.
Found in a Belgian cave, the remains for this possible dog suggest that it lived around 32,000 years ago and resembled a Siberian husky. But it was about the size of a large shepherd dog.
Germonpre told Discovery News that it's unclear now whether these much smaller French dogs descended from the European Paleolithic stock of large dogs, were introduced from elsewhere, or resulted through selection for a smaller body size.
Germonpre pointed out that larger dogs, more contemporaneous with the earliest known French dogs, are known from sites in Russia and the Ukraine.
"This suggests that different types of dogs occurred in Europe at the end of the last Ice Age," she said.
Dogs turn out to have a more colorful and worldly history than once previously believed.
"Genetic research on recent dogs and wolves hints at several centers of dog domestication: the Middle East, Europe and China," Germonpre said, adding that "Europe was probably a center of an early domestication of the wolf."