A team of scientists compared genetic data with existing archaeological evidence to reveal that man’s best friend may have emerged independently from two separate, possibly now extinct, wolf populations that lived on opposite sides of the Eurasian continent.
This means that dogs may have been domesticated not once, as widely believed, but twice. A major international research project on dog domestication, including scientists from the University of Oxford, the University of Liverpool and Trinity College Dublin, has reconstructed the evolutionary history of dogs by first sequencing the genome of a 4,800-year old medium-sized dog from bone excavated at the Neolithic Passage Tomb of Newgrange, Ireland.
Senior author and Director of Palaeo-BARN (the Wellcome Trust Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network) at Oxford University, Professor Greger Larson, said: “Animal domestication is a rare thing and a lot of evidence is required to overturn the assumption that it happened just once in any species.
“Our ancient DNA evidence, combined with the archaeological record of early dogs, suggests that we need to reconsider the number of times dogs were domesticated independently. Maybe the reason there hasn’t yet been a consensus about where dogs were domesticated is because everyone has been a little bit right.”
The team, including French researchers based in Lyon and at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, also obtained mitochondrial DNA from 59 ancient dogs living between 14,000 to 3,000 years ago and then compared them with the genetic signatures of more than 2,500 previously studied modern dogs.
The results of their analyses demonstrate a genetic separation between modern dog populations currently living in East Asia and Europe. Curiously, this population split seems to have taken place after the earliest archaeological evidence for dogs in Europe.
Professor Keith Dobney, co-author and co-director of the dog domestication project from the University of Liverpool’s Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, said: “With the collaboration of many colleagues from across the world–sharing ideas, key specimens and their own data – the genetic and archaeological evidence are now beginning to tell a new coherent story. With so much new and exciting data to come, we will finally be able to uncover the true history of man’s best friend.”
12,000 years ago
The new genetic evidence also shows a population turnover in Europe that appears to have mostly replaced the earliest domestic dog population there, which supports the evidence that there was a later arrival of dogs from elsewhere. A review of the archaeological record also shows that early dogs appear in both the East and West more than 12,000 years ago, but in Central Asia no earlier than 8,000 years ago.
At some point after their domestication, the eastern dogs dispersed with migrating humans into Europe where they mixed with and mostly replaced the earliest European dogs. Most dogs today are a mixture of both Eastern and Western dogs – one reason why previous genetic studies have been difficult to interpret.
The international project, which is combining ancient and modern genetic data with detailed morphological and archaeological research, is currently analysing thousands of ancient dogs and wolves to test this new perspective, and to establish the timing and location of the origins of our oldest pet.
Lead author Dr Laurent Frantz, from the Palaeo-BARN, commented: “Reconstructing the past from modern DNA is a bit like looking into the history books: you never know whether crucial parts have been erased. Ancient DNA, on the other hand, is like a time machine, and allows us to observe the past directly.”
Senior author Professor Dan Bradley, from Trinity College Dublin, commented: “The Newgrange dog bone had the best preserved ancient DNA we have ever encountered, giving us prehistoric genome of rare high quality. It is not just a postcard from the past, rather a full package special delivery.”
The paper, ‘Genomic and archaeological evidence suggest a dual origin of domestic dogs’, is published in Science and supported by the European Research Council (ERC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).