Were Africans The First People To Domesticate Dogs?

Though many believe that domestic dogs originated in Eurasia, new research shows that the human-dog bond may have begun in the cradle of human evolution: Africa. A study published this week cites evidence from the DNA of African village dogs.

Though the domestication of dogs is still shrouded in mystery, one thing scientists agree on is that today's friendly pets are descended from the Eurasian grey wolf. About 15 to 40 thousand years ago, humans befriended these wolves, and over time these wolves branched into the diverse breeds we have today. The genetic diversity seen in Eurasian dogs led researchers to believe that these dogs were closest to their wolf foremothers, and therefore domestication had begun in the region.

But Cornell computational biologist Adam Boyko had a different theory. He believed that the DNA of African village dogs, if sequenced, would reveal a diversity comparable to the Eurasian types. So he asked his brother and sister-in-law, on honeymoon in Egypt, Uganda and Namibia, to collect DNA samples from hundreds of village dogs. Upon their return to the States, Boyko discovered that he had been right. The genetic diversity of African dogs rivaled that of their Eurasian counterparts. Now, he says, it seems likely that dog domestication started in Africa, though the grey wolves themselves are unarguably Eurasian in origin. Probably African village dogs are the descendants of Eurasian dogs that migrated to the continent tens of thousands of years ago.

Boyko told BBC News:

I think it means that the conclusion that was drawn before might have been premature. It's a consequence of having a lot of street dogs from East Asia that were sampled, compared to elsewhere.

"The reason that East Asia looked more diverse than elsewhere was not because East Asia as a continent had more diverse dogs than elsewhere but because non breed street and village dogs are more diverse than breed dogs.

He and an international team of researchers are now gathering DNA from village dogs across Europe and Asia to determine which area has the greatest genetic diversity - and is, by extension, is the most likely origin of the bond between human and canine.

via BBC News

Read the scientific paper by Boyko in PNAS.

Swazi village dog photo by Michael Tallman.