A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Fido’s Mysterious Ancestors

Ancient breeds like the Saluki, aka the Royal Dog of Egypt, don’t explain
much about how wolves became dogs.

We know they came from wolves. But how did it all happen – and where? The answers are more elusive than ever.

We’ve known for some time that they became recognizable as dogs somewhere between 15,000 and 100,000 years ago – maybe in Africa, maybe in Asia, and, from more recent discoveries, maybe in Europe. But that’s quite a wide of time and place! The fact is, the more we know, the more know we don’t know.

So how come we know so little about the history of man’s best friend?

According to Greger Larson at the University of Durham in England, there’s a good reason why scientists are so confused. In a new research paper, he explains that the DNA of modern dogs is so mixed up that it is useless in figuring out when and where dogs originated.

“With the amount of DNA we’ve sequenced so far,” Dr. Larson said, “we’re lucky to get back a hundred years, max.”

The only way we’re going to be able to probe the origin of dogs is by analyzing DNA from dog fossil dogs. And that’s an area of research that’s just now beginning.

For their study, published this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Larson and his colleagues conducted a detailed analysis of DNA 1,375 dogs of 121 breeds, along with 19 wolves. They found that all the modern breeds of dog had been so mixed that their early genetic history was impossible to see.

The also found that a few breeds, including basenji, shar-pei, Akita, Finnish spitz and Eurasier, had less mixed DNA. And when they added these to eight breeds that are older than 500 years, like Salukis, they found that the dogs who were most genetically distinct were not from the places where the oldest archaeological evidence had been found. Rather, they were simply from regions that had been geographically isolated.  For example, dingoes, basenjis and New Guinea singing dogs came from Southeast Asia and southern Africa, where dogs did not arrive until 3,500 and 1,400 years ago respectively. So their distinctive genes were indications of relatively recent isolation.

Dr. Larson says the only way to get to the root of doggie DNA is to study the fossils of dogs who died at least 15,000 years ago. But just as DNA from Neanderthals has helped illuminate the history of modern humans, DNA from ancient dog fossils should help tell the story of early dog domestication.

Fortunately, for all of us who want to know how Fenrir and Amulius would evolve into Fido and Rover, the answer may be at hand.