A Carolina dog, also known as the American dingo. Via Wikipedia
You’d think that with an animal as common and as beloved as the dog, we might know a little more about its history than we do. But dogs, widely considered the first domesticated animal, appear to have such a convoluted and ancient story that it’s hard to retroactively piece it back together.
In a new report published just last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, molecular biologist Peter Savolainen of the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden elucidates a chapter of that story for American dogs in particular. Prior to his work, archaeological evidence had already suggested that the roots of American dogs stem back to the era before European contact. Savolainen and his colleagues wanted to know whether or not modern day canines retained any pre-contact genetic markers or if they were totally replaced by the onslaught of European breeds that began in the fifteenth century.
By examining the mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) of several groups of dogs, including the dingo-like Carolina dog of the southeastern United States, the research team was able to establish a genetic link between certain modern day American canines and their indigenous ancestors. This means that the hegemony of European breeds was limited to some extent. Further, the team's work provided support for the idea that the genetic history of American dogs can ultimately be traced back to East Asia.
In spite of these conclusions, the picture remains substantially complex: some dogs retain more of this older DNA than others and most free-ranging breeds retain very little to none.
Savolainen has been unearthing the history of dogs for well over a decade. In 1997, he and others examined the hypothesis that dogs descended from wolves. What they found while digging around in the mDNA buttressed the wolf-dog idea, but also indicated that dogs may have evolved from their lupine ancestors in several different genetic lines.
Five years later, his research pointed to southern East Asia as the geographic source from which modern day domestic dogs erupted. Another group of scientists argued for a Middle Eastern link in 2010, but Savolainen continued plodding away with his Asia theory, leading to his recent work on the Americas.
As for the history of that other common domesticated animal, Savolainen said to PBS, seemingly reluctantly, “If nobody else does cats, I guess I will have to do it.”