Origins of the domesticated dog challenged

by Leanne Thompson on August 7, 2009

It seems over the last twelve months that there has been much talk about the origin of dogs and the origin of their domestication too.  This week, the thought that the domestic dog as we know it originated from East Asia has been challenged.

In the past, it has been the wide range of genetic diversity in dogs from East Asia that has led experts to believe that domestication started there, however the research published in PNAS concludes that the DNA from the dogs in the villages of Africa is just as diverse, so although dogs may indeed have originated from East Asia there is insufficient evidence to support that conclusion.

The analysis

The report comes from research conducted by a group who analysed the blood of dogs from Uganda, Namibia and Egypt.  They analysed the DNA from 318 dogs from these villages and measured the genetic diversity.

The lead scientist on the project was Dr Adam Boyko from the Dept of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology at the Cornell University.  He said he wanted to consider village dogs as they are more genetically diverse that our modern day bred dogs so they may hold the key to the origins of their domestication.

The team also analysed specific genetic make up from those dog breeds we believe are from African origin such as the Rhodesian Ridgeback, the Saluki and the Pharoah Hound and compared this to non African street dogs and non pedigree dogs in the US.

The results

The report showed genetic diversity in African village dogs was similar to that of East Asian dogs, so they conclude the idea that dog domestication is definitely East Asian should be questioned.

Dr Boyko told BBC News: “I think it means that the conclusion that was drawn before might have been premature. It’s a consequence of having a lot of street dogs from East Asia that were sampled, compared to elsewhere.

“The reason that East Asia looked more diverse than elsewhere was not because East Asia as a continent had more diverse dogs than elsewhere but because non breed street and village dogs are more diverse than breed dogs.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean domestic dogs did not come from East Asia, but it could have been anywhere on the Eurasian landmass where both humans and grey wolves inhabited.  We know today’s dogs are descended from Eurasian grey wolves and we know they were domesticated sometime between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, but where it would appear is not clear.

New research

The team will now sample village and street dogs from both Asia and Europe to try and locate the areas with the most genetic diversity.

Each of the dogs from this study did have grey wolf DNA so it seems we are correct that dogs did descend from Eurasian wolves.

The individual dog breeds looked at shows that the Saluki does share DNA with modern dogs from Egypt and so does the Afghan Hound whilst the Basinji dog is similar to Ugandan and Namibian dogs.

Interestingly though, it seems both the Rhodesian Ridgeback and the Pharoah Hound had very little in common with the dogs of Africa, suggesting that both these breeds have origins outside of Africa.

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