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What Does Genetics Tell us About Ancestry?

February 28, 2018

The Akita first entered Japan about 2000 years ago, becoming a fierce hunting dog, capable of taking down boar, deer, and even bears. They inspired the samurai and became a national treasure, before World War II threatened the dogs’ very existence. With Japan starving and at war, dogs were killed for food and to prevent disease. Morie Sawataishi, an engineer in Japan’s Akita region, never liked dogs. But he knew the importance of the Akita to Japan’s history. Since keeping dogs was illegal during the war, he managed to buy a puppy on the black market for six months’ salary. At the end of the war, he owned 2 of only 16 Akitas left alive. Laterm he re-started Akita breeding and dog shows in Japan, championing the breed and bringing it back from the brink.

As for people, a dog’s history tells you the story of a dog and their ancestry. It’s a tale as old as time. And it reminds us of the hardships, acts of love, and sheer determination that litter history – dog and human alike.


Embark tells you the story of your pooch based on their DNA. Why? The short answer is that ancestry is history, and people are interested in knowing the history of their family. It is your pooch’s personal story, as they are the culmination of thousands of generations. In your dog’s DNA lies the tale of millions of dog, and human, ancestors, living and working together over the past 15,000 years.

But how does DNA tell us this story? We all know that DNA is something of a blueprint for an organism. But DNA also harbors within it a record of the individual’s ancestry, a pedigree. As one moves back the pedigree becomes more complex.  Further back there are thousands of ancestors all contributing to the single individual at the end of the line. However, if one goes even further back, you can find the one small group of early dogs that gave rise to all modern dogs. Even further back still, you can find the single male and female dogs that are the ancestors of all living dogs. You can think of them as the dog equivalents of Adam and Eve (Lady and the Tramp, let’s say).

Your dog’s history

So if you combine enough pedigrees by extending one’s genealogy far enough out, you capture history. And history leaves its stamp on DNA. In some cases, genes that allowed wolves to live closer to people and use their resources, like trash, can show the direct effects of being selected for. In others, changes from random mutations in genes help scientists understand when dogs moved from one place to another or when certain breeds formed.

Each of the tens of thousands of genes that a dog has are affected by that dog’s ancestors’ history (and the history of all those dogs’ owners). If a pedigree reaches a low point where there are only a few dogs (say, when a single pregnant female dog came to Australia and created the dingo or when a determined man saved the Akita from the brink of extinction), then there will be very little diversity among the genes, and that will echo down the generations. Conversely, if there were many many ancestors, then there will be a great variety of genes. By combining what each gene tells us we can provide a big picture summary of the history of your companion’s lineage.

To understand the present, and plan for the future, we must know the past.