The path was not smooth. Differences of opinion erupted and criticism of research methodologies undermined a delicately balanced collaboration process. Numerous studies argued for canine origin in places as diverse as East Asia, Mongolia, Siberia, Europe and Africa, with timing varying from somewhere between 15,000 and 135,000 years ago. Archeologists who’d studied ancient canine burials were relegated to the sidelines, their fossil records dismissed as “old school,” which created further dissention. Researchers struggled to find common ground, but without much success.
The debate ramped up in 2013, when UCLA evolutionary biologist Robert Wayne and his team published a comprehensive set of data suggesting that dogs evolved from a group of European wolves, now extinct, somewhere between 19,000 and 32,000 years ago.
Two years later, Peter Savolainen, a molecular biologist, and his colleagues at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm published convincing results indicating that dogs originated in China, south of the Yangtze River. They estimated that this dog population split from wolves 33,000 years ago.
Both teams were sequencing DNA. Why were their findings literally all over the map?
Savolainen’s research team analyzed DNA samples from living global dog and wolf populations, then tracked DNA from least to most diverse, going back through time. The general rule is that the older a population of animals, the more diversity it has in its genome, which is a hallmark of ancient origin.
Whether these animals represented the first domesticated dogs or, rather, dogs who migrated to the region from elsewhere and split off from a more ancient dog population, is unresolved. Fossil remains of an ancestral and probably extinct population of wolves that would have been indigenous to the area would seal the deal, but researchers have yet to find them. As Savolainen notes, “We have access to some archaeological samples we are about to analyze. However, there has been quite little archaeological work, especially on animals, in the region.”
While Savolainen and his colleagues worked backward in time, Wayne’s group worked forward, tracking ancient DNA collected from prehistoric bones of wolves and wolf-like dogs, then measuring decreasing genetic diversity. As DNA becomes less diverse, it points to animals transitioning from wolves to dogs. A dead end indicates that a lineage became extinct in that particular region.
Wayne’s team sequenced ancient DNA on canid skulls and bone fragments discovered in present-day Siberia and the Czech Republic dating to between 27,000 and 33,000 years ago. The physical characteristics of the skulls—wider muzzles and foreshortened jaws—suggest that these were ancient proto-dogs, not wolves. The canids may have looked similar to today’s Arctic breeds (for example, the Siberian Husky and the Greenland Dog), but were probably much larger. Although their findings were met with skepticism, the team said their data showed that domestic dogs originated from different wolf populations at different times in different places, in a series of starts and stops. And, they added, living dogs are more closely related to ancient extinct wolves than they are to modern wolves.
In an interesting twist, Wayne’s findings reignited the theory of parallel and multi-regional proto-domestication, an idea that Darwin introduced in the 19th century and one that’s gone in and out of favor since.
Both studies have detractors. Some claim that diversity in Savolainen’s ancient dog population is a result of admixture with European dogs as people traversed the Silk Road. Those who criticize Wayne’s study maintain that he has no solid proof that the ancient bones he’s studying are definitively wolf or dog. Additionally, critics say, his study is geographically biased because he excluded samples from dogs in China based on his position that there are no ancient dogs there.
Although the two studies point in very different directions, Savolainen and Wayne may both be right. It’s possible that dogs were domesticated multiple times in different regions, and that most lineages died out when humans were faced with overwhelming challenges, like climate change. Their findings aren’t mutually exclusive.
Crunching the (Very Big) Numbers