Dogs accompanied humans on some of their most fantastic voyages across the Pacific, spreading throughout the islands of Southeast Asia and Oceania. These dogs served as companions, guards, and food animals. Their descendents, mixed with more recent European (dog) arrivals, live on today in islands dotting the Pacific, where they live amongst people, beaches, and palm trees.
Illustration courtesy of the Swedish Kennel Club
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There was a type of dog called the Polynesian Dog which is commonly used to refer to a few kinds of extinct village dogs found in the region. Dogs and humans have been living side by side in Polynesia for many years, and the genetic make-up of these village dogs changes based on human movement throughout the centuries.
Polynesian village dogs descend from some of the most intrepid canine explorers. These dogs have traveled with humans on boats and canoes to some of the most remote places on earth, braving weekslong journeys with their humans.
Over five thousand years ago the first wave of dogs spread as far as Papua New Guinea and then Australia, becoming the ancestors to the New Guinea Singing Dog and the dingo. The dogs that remained in the islands of Southeast Asia from then likely contributed to some of the current Southeast Asian and Oceania island village dog, though there have been several successive waves of dog migrations through island Southeast Asia and eventually further and further into Polynesia.
The dogs currently alive in Southeast Asia, such as Borneo, Bali, and Papua New Guinea, show the impacts of these successive waves of migrations from mainland Southeast Asia. They harbor very high genetic diversity (as opposed to the dingo and New Guinea Singing Dog, which are some of the least diverse dog populations on earth). On some islands, such as Bali, the dogs also show a strong impact of recent European dog migration to the islands, with dogs brought by colonizers in the last 200 years mixing with the local dogs. Other islands, such as Borneo, show almost no European dog ancestry.
Dogs spread to Oceania with early Melanesians, and the dogs throughout Oceania, such as the Polynesian village dogs, are most closely related to Indonesian and Melanesian dogs, not Taiwanese or Philippine dogs (where Polynesians originated). Combined with archaeological evidence showing early dog spread, this suggests that dogs colonized Polynesia multiple times, potentially service a role in trade as well as companionship, guarding, and as food.
Dogs in Oceania now also show some evidence of recent interbreeding with European dogs. This is stronger in some areas (Tahiti in French Polynesia for example) than in others (most outlying islands). These dogs have adapted to very different environments than most dogs and are therefore thought to be very useful in studying local adaptation in dogs. Studies are ongoing!