Take everything you thought you knew about the history of dogs and throw it out the window. The answer to the not-so-simple question of which breed is the oldest is changing all the time. That is because, in terms of genetics, dogs are a hot mess.
Consider the fact that dogs have been a companion to man for thousands of years, so the viable DNA samples we need to get definitive answers are really, really old. Next, it’s almost impossible to determine if ancient remains are dogs, wolves, foxes or something else. Next, consider that the genetics of dogs have been heavily influenced by humans over the last few hundred years trying to mix and match to create specific breeds for particular tasks and appearances. Next, consider that several breeds have teetered on the brink of extinction over their histories and been brought back to life by inter-breeding with other newer breeds. And last, consider that dogs are so closely related to wolves that the rascals have been inter-breeding all along. The result is a haystack of overlapping genetic information leading in a thousand directions.
Our relationship with dogs dates back to the Ice Age
Until recently, it was thought that domesticated dogs originated in East Asia or the Middle East no more than 13,000 years ago as evidenced by the 12,000-year-old remains of a puppy found in the arms of an elderly man in a burial site in Israel.
However, a study published just this November in the journal of Science analyzes the mitochondrial genomes of 8 ancient dogs and 10 ancient wolves and compared it to that of 77 modern dogs from a wide variety of breeds, 49 modern wolves and four coyotes.
What scientists found changes everything.
The study concluded that dogs were most likely domesticated in Ice Age Europe between 18,800 and 32,100 year ago. This is much, much earlier and much farther north than biologists and archeologists previously thought.
But wait, there’s more.
Modern dogs have more in common with ancient dogs than modern wolves
The DNA of the modern dogs were genetically grouped with that of the ancient wolves and dogs from Europe and not with that of the modern wolf. That’s right. The skull found in the Altai Mountains of Siberia dated 33,000 years ago is that of an ancient dog. So if dogs came from dogs, where the heck did dogs come from?
The authors speculate this means that dogs likely evolved from a now extinct species of ancient European wolf. These wolves followed bands of humans who were hunting woolly mammoths and other large prey. I’ll say it again. Woolly. Mammoths. That’s what I call an old friendship.
While it was previously believed that dogs became domesticated when humans began farming, now we see the first unambiguous occurrence of a domesticated dog actually precedes agriculture by several thousand years.
It seems, dogs have always known where their bread is buttered. Scientists believe these wolves initially sought out the carcasses and scraps of meat left behind by man. Over time, the wolves found their place in the human hunter-gatherer society. These ancient wolves likely assisted humans in finding prey or even deterred other carnivores from interfering with the hunt.
So what dog breeds are actually the oldest?
Genetic testing is constantly changing the landscape. In 2004, the journal of Science published a study claiming that there were 15 “cluster 1” original breeds, thereby classifying them as the oldest dog breeds. However, this was based on how closely the DNA of these breeds matched that of the modern wolf. Given that the findings of this year have blown the lid off that idea, which breeds are, in fact, the oldest?
Well, oldest is relative. Many of the breeds who made the new old list did so simply because they were more secluded from the general European dog population. So, more accurately, new studies (Rethinking dog domestication by integrating genetics, archeology, and biogeography, journal of Science, April 2013) identifies which breeds have the purest ancient DNA.
|Previously thought to be the oldest breeds:||Now thought to be the oldest breeds:||Dogs previously thought to be old that really, really aren’t:|
Sorry guys. According to your DNA, you are 3rd generation at best.