Dogs were probably invented in China, suggest Chinese scientists

Wild ancestors.
Wild ancestors.
Image: Reuters/Vladimir Pirogov
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“Where do dogs come from?” It’s a simple question, but one that researchers have been struggling with for some time. Currently, most agree that domesticated dogs as we know them are descended from wolves. But when and where that happened remains a mystery.

Last year, a team led by scientists at Cornell University in the US claimed that wild canines became familiar dogs 15,000 years ago, in Central Asia (paywall). But a new study by Chinese scientists puts their origin at 33,000 years ago, in southern East Asia—which, by most definitions of the region, would suggest southern China.

“Around 15,000 years ago, a subset of ancestral dogs started migrating to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, arriving in Europe at about 10,000 years ago,” claimed the study, led by Wang Guodong at the Kunming Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a state-backed think tank.

A map of the migration of early dog breeds
A map from the Chinese proposal for how the first dog breeds arose and spread.
Image: Wang et al, Nature Cell Research

Wang’s research studied the DNA of 58 canids including grey wolves, Asian and African primitive dogs (that is, dogs with little genetic diversity and which are closest to wolves), and a range of diverse breeds (that is, dogs that have been interbred by humans) from across the world.

It found dogs in East Asia to be far more genetically diverse than dogs elsewhere. The study also noted that East Asian dogs were much more wolf-like than their international peers.

Genetic “tomato soup”

Part of the reason it’s so hard to determine clearly where and when dogs became dogs is that they have spent at least 15,000 years interbreeding at random, Greger Larson, a biologist at the University of Oxford, told the New York Times (paywall). In addition to that genetic “tomato soup,” as he calls it, there was a rush of new dog breeds created in the 19th century—“the giant whirlwind blender of the European crazy Victorian dog-breeding frenzy,” as he put it.

But the two schools of thought, between those who point to evidence that dogs originated in Central Asia and those who suggest they came from East Asia, might see much weightier opinion coming soon. Larson has put together a global team of dog researchers to conduct possibly the largest-ever study into the development of our canine friends.

His team comprises essentially every major canine researcher in the world. It is about to finish collecting around 1,500 DNA samples and several thousand photographs and measurements of bones, teeth, skulls, and other evidence from wolves, dogs of all kinds, and canids that could belong to either category. It plans to use this mass of data to better determine whether the origin of dogs should be placed at 15,000 or 30,000-plus years ago—and where.