It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of many things, particularly when they were tens of thousands of years ago. One thing we know for certain is that dogs today were descended from wolves. But we’re not entirely sure what exact part of the world dogs originated from.
Recent research suggests that there are two different places of origin: Europe and Asia. That said, these results are hotly contested, and it’s difficult to say how accurate the hypothesis is.
This article takes a closer look at the origins of dogs — where, when, and even how they were domesticated.
Where Did Dogs Originate?
For some time, it was theorized that dogs were domesticated in one place. But a study in 2016 using an international team of scientists found that there was a split in the DNA.1 The scientists used DNA sequences from 59 ancient dogs in addition to the genome of a 4,800-year-old dog fossil found in Ireland.
The DNA showed that there were two groups: East Asia and the Middle East and Europe. The scientists hypothesized that either the dogs originated in East Asia and eventually migrated west or that the dogs originated in both Europe and Asia.
The evidence doesn’t support that the dogs migrated west after originating in Europe, so it’s been concluded that they must have originated in both Asia and Europe. Eventually, the Asian dogs migrated with humans to the Middle East and Western Europe.
Another, more recent study published in 2022 found that dogs are more closely related to ancient wolves in eastern Asia than wolves from Europe.2 But it was also found that these ancient wolves weren’t actually close ancestors of dogs, so where domestication occurred is still uncertain.
What Wolves Are the Closest Relatives to Modern Dogs?
It’s long been said that gray wolves (Canis lupus) are the closest relatives to dogs. They have three lineages: the Eurasian, North American, and domestic dog. There’s also an extinct line from the Pleistocene (also known as the Ice Age) in Eurasia.
But this 2021 study states that the closest relative to modern dogs is a subspecies of the gray wolf, which is the Japanese wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax), also known as the Honshu wolf. This wolf was found in the Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu islands of the Japanese archipelago but became extinct more than 100 years ago.
The origins of the Japanese wolf are still unclear, but it’s thought that they are closely related to a line of Siberian wolves. The Japanese wolf is an entirely distinct species, and the lineage of our modern dogs is closest to them.
Additionally, both dogs and the Japanese wolf have the same ancestor: the extinct gray wolves from East Asia.
How Did Dogs Become Domesticated?
The gray wolf ancestor from the late Pleistocene was the first to be domesticated. The evidence has shown that domestication could have been as long ago as 23,000 years and is believed to have occurred in Siberia, when the harsh climate of the Last Glacial Maximum (the late stage of the Ice Age) kept wolves and people isolated.
Due to being alone in such a cold environment, gray wolves stayed close to human settlements to scavenge food. The least shy of these wolves were likely the species that eventually evolved into modern dogs.
Dogs were the earliest and only species to be domesticated during the Pleistocene in Eurasia. These early dogs may have assisted migrating groups with hunting and transporting people and goods, for fur and meat, and as guard dogs, bed-warmers, and companions.
About 15,000 or 16,000 years ago, the first people to arrive in the Americas were accompanied by dogs when they dispersed throughout the continent.
What Are the Oldest Dog Breeds Around Today?
Many of the early ancestors of modern dogs have since gone extinct, but several ancient breeds have persevered.
- Akita Inu: The oldest breed of dog seems to keep changing. The Basenji was once considered the oldest, but the Akita Inu is now thought to be the oldest dog. The Akita comes from Japan and was used for hunting large game. They are believed to be about 10,000 years old.
- Greenland Sled Dog: There aren’t any signs of gray wolf lineage in these dogs in the past 9,500 years. They work as sled dogs, but they aren’t well-known or recognized by the AKC.
- Afghan Hound: These dogs have been around for about 8,000 years, and it’s believed that they were bred by the nomadic people of Afghanistan. They were bred for hunting and are excellent sighthounds.
- Greyhound: Bred to run, the Greyhound goes back about 8,000 years and is also the fastest dog in the world (they can run in bursts of 45 mph)!
- Basenji: The Basenji goes back at least 5,000 or 6,000 years and is believed to have originated in Ancient Egypt or Africa. These dogs are famous for not barking, but rather making a kind of yodeling sound.
- Tibetan Mastiff: All Mastiffs are ancient, but the Tibetan is the oldest and goes back 5,000 years. They were used as guard dogs and make lovely family dogs, but unfortunately, they can be aggressive toward strangers.
- Saluki: Another breed that’s about 5,000 years old, the Saluki is an Ancient Egyptian breed and sighthound. They are known for their speed.
- Alaskan Malamute: The earliest ancestors of the Malamute likely came from Siberia and came to Alaska to pull sleds, hunt, and protect against polar bears. The Malamute goes back about 5,000 years.
- Chow Chow: The Chow Chow comes from China and is thought to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old. They were bred to be guard dogs and are famous for their distinctive blue or black tongues.
- Poodle: The Poodle comes from Germany. Far from the prim little French dog stereotype, they are athletic hunting and water dogs. They go back about 2,000 years.
The story of the origins of the modern dog is confusing and messy. There’s a great deal of debate and studies on the subject, and one study will come to a different conclusion than another. It’s quite challenging to come up with the right kind of evidence when studying events more than 15,000 years ago!
Maybe someday, we’ll have a better idea of how our dogs came to be. But in the meantime, enjoy your relationship with your canine friend, and be grateful to all of our ancestors for giving us such incredible companions.
Featured Image Credit: SasaStock, Shutterstock