Where did dogs come from? While the answer isn’t yet clear, DNA has given scientists many clues about the origin of our canine companions.
What do we know about where dogs came from?
As The New York Times reports, “Scientists generally agree that humanity’s best friend descended from gray wolves, scampering into our lives at least 15,000 years ago. Virtually everything else is a matter of debate.”
Research by Embark scientists found strong evidence that dogs were domesticated in Central Asia, perhaps near present-day Nepal and Mongolia. Other researchers have pointed to East Asia, the Middle East, or Europe.
Domestic dogs descended from wolves
Dogs were the first animal domesticated by humans. Before cattle, before wheat—and yes, before cats—there were dogs.
At some point in the Late Pleistocene epoch (a time period that included the last Ice Age), a lucky population of wolf-like canids (early dogs) became associated with humans. Over time this resulted in a host of changes.
They likely became more docile and socially aware of human moods and manners. Physically, they changed in a manner evident in the fossil records. They became smaller, exhibiting a more neotenous (“puppy-like”) look. In this way, they paved the way for domestication of dozens of other plants and animals with the Neolithic revolution.
Today’s dog breeds came from village dogs
“Most of the dogs in the world today are not purebred dogs, or even mixed-breed dogs,” says Dr. Adam Boyko, Chief Science Officer and co-founder at Embark. “Most of the dogs in the world are what we call free-ranging, free-breeding dogs, or village dogs.”
That’s how dogs initially evolved. The dogs that descended from gray wolves were village dogs, not individual breeds.
Learn more about village dogs with this short explainer from Dr. Boyko:
Where in the world did dogs come from?
The demographic and evolutionary history of the dog may be somewhat more complicated than our own. Both dogs and wolves (the ancestors of the dog) are alive today. The two can even mate and produce viable and fertile hybrids (called wolfdogs). Because dogs and wolves can mate, it may, in fact, be that the dog has had multiple partial points of origin.
A 2022 study of wolf DNA offers new data about the origin of dogs. The study suggests that dogs have ancestry from at least two different ancient wolf populations. It’s possible that both wolf populations—one eastern Eurasian, the other western Eurasian—gave rise to modern dogs.
Currently, there are two major theories about where dogs came from. One theory suggests that the earliest western and eastern dogs were domesticated independently from local wolf populations—that is, that they were domesticated twice (referred to as “dual origin”). The other theory is that dogs were only domesticated only once from the eastern Eurasian wolf population, and later mated with western Eurasian wolves as they moved from east to west, which would explain the ancestry from those western Eurasian wolves that lives on in dog DNA. This hypothesis is called “single origin.”
Although a lot of research has been done on the subject, we still don’t know for certain whether dog domestication occurred once or twice. It’s an intriguing possibility that dogs were domesticated twice. A simpler explanation is that they were domesticated just once, and later mated with another population of wolves in another part of the world. To answer this question, scientists need more ancient dog DNA from the earliest western dogs.
Early dogs traveled with humans
As Dr. Greger Larson from the University of Oxford explains, humans and dogs have a long, shared history. Throughout history, wherever humans went, dogs went, too.
Dogs have long been traded across human populations like salt, spices, and other valuable goods. This means that the genetic patterns of dog migrations have as much to do with human cultural patterns as they do with the natural expansion of the species. In fact, Embark scientists have found that village dog populations can often be traced to specific European colonial patterns; for example, the dogs in Brazil likely descend from Portuguese dogs.
Because domestic dogs are impacted by human culture, and because culture changes fast, unraveling the layers of dog history may actually be more difficult than the deep history of humanity. Our genetic tools are getting better and better, but the task is a very hard one.
That’s why Embark is committed to a scientific mission, as we assemble the largest canine genetic database. Our goal is to analyze DNA from millions of dogs. With such a large amount of data about the dog genome and canine genetic diversity, we may finally be able to unravel the mystery of the origin of humankind’s best friend.