Some fourteen breeds of dogs are generally considered "ancient," including the samoyed, shar pei, and saluki. But while these breeds have been given this label for their supposed link to the predecessors of modern canines, new research reveals that they're as modern as every other dog on the block.
A group of biologists analysed genetic data from 1,375 dogs representing 35 breeds, 19 wolves, and compared the information to the archaeological record for truly ancient dogs. The results show just how foggy our notions of a dog "breed" really are.
The vast majority of modern breeds are constructions of the last few hundred years, specifically the Victorian kennel clubs which created or solidified many of them. What separates many of the so-called "ancient" breeds is that they were geographically distinct enough from this movement that they weren't involved in all the genetic intermingling. Dogs like the basenji and akita are genetically distinct from the vast majority of modern dog breeds — but that doesn't make them ancient.
Sure, these breeds are distinct, and have been for a few hundred years, but when compared to the origins of the domestic dog around 15,000 years ago, they're hardly ancient. Pinning the transition from wild to domestic is tricky in its own right, but regardless of when this happened, dogs have been intersecting and interbreeding for thousands of years, and none of these "ancient" breeds is near remote enough to be at all closely linked to the origins of the species. The fact that dogs in Mexico and China share a mutation for hairlessness, and ones in Thailand and sub-Saharan Africa share one for a ridged back, shows just how widely many genes have spread across breeds.
Image of a Saluki by Keith Dobney