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Is Central Asia the “homeland” of dogs?

Dogs have long been known for being man's best friend, but where did these beasts of companionship come from? Recent research examining dog DNA has shed light on the answer.

Dogs have been a part of many human societies for thousands of years. Yet we know little of where dogs came from, or how they were domesticated. Now, scientists have found credible evidence that dogs first emerged in Central Asia.

A number of so-called “homelands” have been proposed for our canine friends. Siberia, China, the Middle East, Europe, conflicting evidence has been found for a wide range of locations. The most recent study, however, the most extensive of its kind, and may provide the long sought answer.

The extensive study involved  more than 4,500 dogs of 161 breeds and 549 village dogs from 38 countries examined.

Importantly, the study went beyond examining defined dog breeds and looked at so-called “village” dogs too. Village dogs refer to the domesticated but still semi-wild dogs that hang around the peripheries of human civilization, lacking a home but living within human society.

While most people in European and North America might think of dogs as pets, village dogs actually make up the majority of the world’s dog population.

The massive study and wide sampling of DNA allowed researchers to hone in on the likely geographic birthplace of dogs. The primary question was which ancient dogs do modern does most closely resemble genetically, and it turns out that Central Asia takes the cake.

Central Asia is an ill-defined region, but the researchers cited modern-day Nepal, northern India, and the surrounding regions as the likely birthplace of the dog.

The genetic study itself relied on the work of Greger Larson, an Oxford University professor, and others who have launched an international effort to examine ancient canines. Professor Larson complimented the researchers on their work, noting its sheer size and scope.

Still, researchers caution that while the study does seem to point to Central Asia as the most recent place for the closest relative of the modern dog, our understanding of ancient DNA is still limited and incomplete.

This means that the dogs found in central asia some 15,000 years ago may have actually already been domesticated elsewhere. For example, maybe the dogs were domesticated in the Middle East or China, and then brought to Mongolia via trading caravans.

While the proof offered was not definitive, the study itself was the largest ever conducted on modern dogs. DNA from all chromosomes was tested, as to was the mitochondria. These cellular organelles actually contain  their own DNA.

The results of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Understanding the nature and evolution of dogs will help us understand more about ourselves. Dog migration patterns could help reveal human migration and trading routes, and the domestication of the dog itself was a major milestone for humanity.

Most evidence now points to dogs being descendants of gray wolves, but this itself opens as many questions as answers. How did one of nature’s most fearsome predators become our loyal companions? While the answer to this remains unknown, if the recent research is correct, it could at least tell us where to look.