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The Middle East is considered the cradle of man's civilization, but new research points to that title being appropriate for man's best friend as well. According to findings reported in the journal "Nature" based on a comprehensive genetic study, it is highly probable that today's dogs are descended from wolves domesticated first in the Middle East.

The research team, which included Eli Geffen of Tel Aviv University, investigated genetic samples from 912 dogs of 85 different breeds and samples from 227 wolves from various parts of the world. An analysis of the genetic samples revealed that almost all breeds of dog are genetically identical to Middle Eastern wolves rather than wolves from other parts of the world, regardless of the canine's size or geographic origin, including the Chihuahua and the Israeli Canaan breed.

Israel is also the only country in the Middle East where there are still wolves in the wild.

The researchers have concluded that wolves were domesticated in the Middle East likely beginning several tens of thousands of years ago. The study contrasts an earlier report that concluded dogs were initially domesticated in China.

"Dog breeds have undergone very many changes since domestication began and therefore there was great difficulty prior to this study in determining where they were domesticated first," Geffen said yesterday.

He added that "what is interesting about the Middle East is the fact that it was here that other species of animals were domesticated, including the cat."

In another study in which Geffen was involved, it was found that cats were apparently initially domesticated either in present-day Iraq or in Egypt.

One of the explanations for this is that the Middle East was the first place where human beings had settled agrarian societies conducive for wild animals to become pets.

With regard to dogs, it is not clear why they arose first in this region. It is thought that the first wolves were domesticated by nomads and shepherds, which could have been accomplished elsewhere in the world at the time. It is possible that the Middle East is where people first came in contact with wolves, said Geffen.