Modern Dogs Trace Ancestry to Southeast Asia

Lauren Sommer/KQED

Dogs may be our close companions now, but how long that’s been the case has been a mystery to scientists. Now, researchers at UC Davis have uncovered new evidence about how today’s dogs evolved from wolves.
The archeological record seems to show dogs and humans paired up for the first time 14,000 years ago in Europe and the Middle East. But DNA evidence tells a different story. A new study of modern dogs' DNA suggests domestic K-9s descended from ancestors in Southeast Asia instead.
“It looked like dogs must have originated in Southeast Asia,” says Ben Sacks, a geneticist at UC Davis. “This has been a controversy for over 10 years now about whether dogs originated in Southeast Asia or in the Middle East and Europe.”
Dogs appeared in Southeast Asia about 7,000 years after they had appeared in Europe. Sacks believes the evolutionary forces were different in Southeast Asia: the area didn’t have many wolves to interbreed with, so dogs developed their human-friendly demeanor faster. From there, they spread across the globe and replaced European dogs.
That doesn’t mean early dogs were fetching sticks.
“A lot of our thinking about how humans and dogs relate is colored from recent Western society,” Sacks says. “It’s somewhat unclear what the initial behaviors would have been, other than the most basic thing - lack of fear [of humans]. One of the first roles for dogs in early human agricultural systems was livestock guarding.”
Sacks says while dog development was heavily influenced by humans, it does give researchers insight into how evolution works.
“This is all very recent so there’s actually the potential to put a lot more pieces together of the puzzle to look at how these particular lines went off in a different direction,” he says.
The rise of dogs in society also gives anthropologists clues about how early human civilizations lived.