One of the most pressing scientific questions of our time is, without a doubt, where do we come from? Although it’s likely that dogs are far too distracted by abandonment issues to have time for any existential ponderings, scientists are quite curious as to where dogs first came from, and a new Nature Communications paper may have the answer.
It’s long been known that humanity artificially selected more docile wolves and bred them into the hundreds of varieties of dogs you can see around the world today, and a recent study suggests that they were likely domesticated twice.
This new study adds to this evolutionary epic with a concise, elegant, and fairly conclusive origin story.
Geneticists led by a team from Stony Brook University took genetic samples from two Neolithic (“New Stone Age”) dogs found at several archaeological sites in Germany, and one additional sample from some dog remains in Ireland. Two were around 4,750 years old, and one was 7,000 years old.
Comparing the whole genome to thousands of modern European dogs and wolves, the team found that the genomes were nowhere near as dissimilar as one could expect. In fact, they were remarkably alike.
This suggests that both modern and ancient dogs have a common genetic root, one that – in Europe at least – has remained relatively unbroken and undiluted, so to speak, for thousands of years.
Although it’s hard to say for sure at this point – the cross-breeding of both modern and ancestral dog lineages throughout history has made tracing their evolution quite a difficult task – Eurasian dogs were probably the first to be bred from their wolf-like ancestors.
This study, therefore, implies that all modern dogs ultimately have a single geographic origin, one that is likely to be Germany, or at least Central Europe.
In order for this all to be confirmed, however, more genetic samples from ancient dog remains from South East Asia, South America, and the Middle East are required.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the oldest remains that can be attributed to domestic dogs, Canis lupis familiaris, are jaw bone fragments found in Germany that date back 14,700 years – so, at the very least, this territory was a key center of dog domestication and breeding.
The team even manage to use the genetic analysis to narrow down when dogs and wolves first diverged: between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. If the upper limit is accurate, this means that humans domesticated dogs around the time our Neanderthal cousins died out.