Just think of 101 Dalmatians, Lassie, Marley & Me and the dozens of other films about dogs and you’ll notice that their friendship with humans is something a little special. Now, an international research group have discovered that this special relationship began in two separate places, when our ancestors independently domesticated dogs at both ends of the Eurasian continent.
How DNA-profiling sheds light on the past
The team of scientists, led by the University of Oxford, sampled and analysed the DNA of 2,500 modern dogs and 59 ancient dogs that lived between 3,000 and 14,000 years ago to trace when wild wolves became friendly, domesticated dogs.
“Reconstructing the past from modern DNA is a bit like looking into the history books: you never know whether crucial parts have been erased,” says lead-author Laurent Frantz from Oxford University. “Ancient DNA, on the other hand, is like a time machine, and allows us to observe the past directly.”
In this context the scientists’ best friend is a medium-sized dog that lived in Ireland around 4,800 years ago and whose bones were found at the Newgrange Neolithic Passage Tomb. Its remains contain the best-preserved ancient DNA the scientists are able to study.
Their findings show that the first dogs appeared separately both in Europe and East Asia more than 12,000 years ago, which means people in both parts of the world domesticated dogs independently from each other. Even to this day there still remains a genetic difference between modern European and Asian dogs, even though most dogs are a mix of both.
But that’s not all. They also discovered that Asian dogs must have travelled with their human friends westwards, mixing with the European ones until the ancient European dogs almost disappeared.
The perfect solution for a scientific dispute
The new study, published in the journal Science, also ends a year-long scientific argument about the origin of dogs. Until now, researchers couldn’t agree on whether the first domestic dogs appeared in Europe or Asia. The study suggests that in the end, all of them were a little bit right.
Meanwhile, the dog domestication project continues. The scientists want to continue to analyse the genes of thousands of ancient dogs and wolves to test their theory and to say more precisely when and where this relationship with man’s best friend.
Now if you’ll excuse, Rover wants to go for a walk…