More on the Origins of Domestic Dogs

Published: February 02, 2012
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A few weeks ago I wrote a column about a 2004 Science article entitled, "Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog." The research revealed fascinating relationships between breeds and also uncovered which dogs were some of the first to split off from the main "trunk" of domestic dogs and develop separately as unique breeds. To quote:

A subset of breeds with ancient Asian and African origins splits off from the rest of the breeds and shows shared patterns of allele frequencies. At first glance, it is surprising that a single genetic cluster includes breeds from Central Africa (Basenji), the Middle East (Saluki and Afghan), Tibet (Tibetan Terrier and Lhasa Apso), China (Chow Chow, Pekingese, Shar-Pei, and Shi Tzu), Japan (Akita and Shiba Inu), and the Arctic (Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, and Samoyed). However, several researchers have hypothesized that early pariah dogs originated in Asia and migrated with nomadic human groups both south to Africa and north to the Arctic, with subsequent migrations occurring throughout Asia (5, 6, 30).

But what about taking things one step further back? I want to know where in the world people first had the idea of domesticating wolves. This was a seminal event in human history; it’s hard to imagine modern human society without dogs. The Science article hints at the answer by referring to researchers who have "hypothesized" that early pariah dogs (i.e., ownerless dogs that fend for themselves) originated in Asia, but doesn’t address the question directly.

I think we now have the answer. The results of a new study, published at the end of 2011, point to southeast Asia — specifically an area south of the Yangtze River — as the point of origin for domestic dogs. Other researchers had asserted that the Middle East or Europe was the most likely site of dog domestication but their work did not include samples from southeast Asia.

The new paper was published in Heredity and looked at the genetic structure of 151 dogs from around the world. The most genetic diversity was seen in dogs from southeast Asia. The results indicate that these dogs were the first dogs (originating from 13-24 wolf founding mothers and fathers), and subsequent breeds developed when subsets of this group were removed and bred only to one another. The research also determined that wolves have occasionally bred with dogs after their "separation," but the genetic significance of this interbreeding has been quite small.

Cool. People domesticated wolves in southeast Asia, and the dogs that resulted traveled from there until they became our partners in almost every corner of the world.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Serg Zastavkin  / via Shutterstock