In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Greger Larson of Durham University reveals how the DNA of modern dogs is changing our understanding of what the earliest domesticated dogs were like.
Greger Larson is a reader in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University and the principal investigator in the Durham Evolution & Ancient DNA Lab. The DEAD Lab seeks to understand evolution through the study of the processes involved in the domestication of animals. Professor Larson holds a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Oxford.
Dr. Greger Larson – Ancient Dogs
Dogs are unquestionably the first domestic animal. Despite this, and the fact that there are more than 72 million dogs livings in American houses, we have very little idea when, where, or even how many times dogs were domesticated. Recent genetic studies have, however, identified divergent genetic signatures in a handful of dogs that have become known as ancient breeds. In order to understand why breeds such as Basenjis, Salukis, and Akitas possessed such odd genetic profiles, we compared the genetic signatures of 120 breeds with the archaeological record of dogs across the globe.
Correlating the earliest archeological dogs with the geographic locations of the ancient breeds resulted in a counterintuitive pattern. Firstly, none of the ancient breeds are from places where the oldest archeological remains have been found. Secondly, several ancient breeds such as Dingoes come from regions where dogs were introduced thousands of years after they were domesticated. Lastly, some ancient breeds, like the Eurasier, were purposefully created by breeders as recently as the 1960s.
We believe that most genetically ancient breeds only appear so because they have been isolated from other breeds beyond geographic or cultural barriers, and thus were more likely to retain an odd genetic signature. Our results suggest that genetic distinctiveness cannot be conflated with an ancient heritage. Because studies of modern dogs will always be limited in what they can reveal about the origins of the first domestic animals, ancient DNA studies of the earliest dogs will allow us to unravel the mystery. Americans spend nearly $4 billion on their dogs each year, and soon we will know a great deal more about how they ended up at the foot of the bed.