Ancient Dog Mystery Remains Unsolved

Posted May 22nd, 2012 at 10:35 pm (UTC+0)
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(Photo: Michael Howard via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Photo: Michael Howard via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Exactly where man’s best friend came from remains a mystery.

Thousands of years of cross-breeding have made it difficult for scientists to trace the ancient genetic roots of today’s dogs.

Still, British researchers gave it a try. They recently compared genetic data from 1,375 modern-day dogs, from 35 different breeds, to global archeological records of dog remains.

Although, other genetic studies suggest dogs descended from the grey wolf, the researchers found modern dog breeds, genetically speaking, have little in common with their ancient ancestors.

Dogs were the first animals domesticated by man about 15,000 years ago. However, we really didn’t start keeping them as pets until about 2,000 years ago.  Even so, until fairly recently, most dogs were kept and used to perform specific jobs.

Although some dog breeds – such as the Akita, Afghan Hound and the Chinese Shar-Pei – have been classified as ancient by canine experts, they’re no closer to the first domesticated dogs than any other modern breeds.  This, according to the study, is again due to cross-breeding through the years.

Other aspects affecting the dog’s genetic diversity include human movement and migration.  Major worldwide events, such as the two world wars, also impacted the dog population, the researchers said.

Certain breeds such as the Saluki appear genetically different because they were geographically isolated and were not part of the 19th century efforts to blend lineages to create most of the breeds we keep as pets today. (Photo: Keith Dobney)

Breeds like the Saluki appear genetically different because they were geographically isolated and were not part of the 19th century efforts to blend lineages to create most of the breeds we keep as pets today. (Photo: Keith Dobney)

Lead author Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist in Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, said, “Ironically, the ubiquity of dogs combined with their deep history has obscured their origins and made it difficult for us to know how dogs became man’s best friend.  All dogs have undergone significant amounts of cross-breeding to the point that we have not yet been able to trace all the way back to their very first ancestors.”

Previous studies of breeds such Basenjis, Salukis and Dingoes indicated they had different genetic signatures, which provided evidence of an ancient heritage.

But the researchers say their new study shows the unique genetic signatures in these dogs were not necessarily due to being directly descended from ancient dogs, but merely appeared to be genetically different because they were geographically isolated and were not part of the 19th Century kennel clubs which blended various lineages in order to create most of the breeds we’re familiar with today.

As DNA sequencing becomes faster and cheaper, the scientists are hopeful more research will provide further insight into the evolution and domestication of our canine friends.

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