The question of where dogs came from may finally be answered as a new study involving the DNA of more than 4,500 dogs of 161 breeds including 549 village dogs from 38 countries has allowed researchers to trace their origins back to Central Asia.
While previous studies have suggested dogs’ origins can be traced to Europe, the Near East, Siberia and South China, this study is the first of its kind involving such a large and diverse group of dogs—and allowed researchers to determine which geographic groups of modern dogs were closest to ancestral populations genetically.
According to a recent article, the study involved not only purebred dogs, but also street or village dogs—the free-ranging kind that make up about 75% of the planet’s one billion dogs today. From the DNA data compiled, researcher Dr. Adam R. Boyko from Cornell University said in the article their analysis led them to Central Asia, including Mongolia and Nepal, as the place where “all the dogs alive today” come from. The data did not allow precise dating of the origin, but showed it occurred at least 15,000 years ago. He also noted that this genetic study worked in much the same way that DNA was used to locate the origin of modern humans in East Africa.
“It’s really great to see not just the sheer number of street dogs, but also the geographic breadth and the number of remote locations where the dogs were sampled,” Greger Larson, who is leading an international effort to analyze ancient DNA from fossilized bones, said in the article.
However, in the world of dog studies, very little is definitive. The most recent common ancestor of today’s dogs lived in Central Asia, Dr. Boyko said, although he cannot rule out the possibility that some dogs could have been domesticated elsewhere and died out. Or dogs domesticated elsewhere could have gone to Central Asia from somewhere else and then diversified into all the canines alive today, he added.
Dr. Larson, who was not involved with the study, said in the article that he thought the Central Asia finding required further testing and that the origins of modern dogs is “extremely messy.” With no amount of sampling of living populations being definitive, he said a combination of studies of modern and ancient DNA is necessary.
Dr. Boyko said the research for the first time studied three sources of DNA from purebred and village dogs worldwide. He traveled to a number of the locations where blood was drawn from dogs and the team analyzed DNA from all the chromosomes in the cell nucleus, from the Y-chromosome specifically, found only in males, and from mitochondria, cellular energy machines outside the nucleus that are inherited from the mother.
“The great thing about working with dogs is that if you show up with food you don’t usually have trouble recruiting subjects,” he said. However, he added: “We showed up in Puerto Rico at a fishing village and the dogs turned up their noses at roast beef sandwiches. They were used to eating fish entrails.”
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