Wolves evolved into man’s best friend south of the Yangtze River in what is now China, according to a new study. These findings, which contradict a 2010 paper suggesting that wolves became dogs in the Middle East, represent the latest attempt to pinpoint the origins of our canine companions.
Most experts agree that prehistoric humans began taming wolves tens of thousands of years ago, transforming dangerous pack predators into loyal companions and creating specialized dog breeds for different tasks. (In another version of this story, wolves engineered their own domestication after tasting the bounty of campsite living.) But where exactly did dogs first diverge from their ancestors, undergoing the subtle genetic changes that made them social, submissive and, of course, snuggly?
The answer, according to Swedish and Chinese researchers, lies on the southern banks of the Yangtze River, in a small area of East Asia known as the ASY region. “Our results confirm that Asia south of the Yangtze River was the most important—and probably the only—region for wolf domestication, and that a large number of wolves were domesticated,” said Peter Savolainen of Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, co-author of a paper summarizing the findings that was published last week in the journal Heredity.
Savolainen and his colleagues reached these conclusions after analyzing DNA from 151 male dogs born in various places around the world. They determined that the ASY region is the only spot on the planet with the entire range of genetic diversity found in modern dogs. “This shows that gene pools in all other regions of the world most probably originate from the ASY region,” Savolainen explained. Crossbreeding between dogs and wolves from other areas “contributed only modestly to the dog gene pool,” he said.
The new paper conflicts with research on canine genetics led by biologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, and published last March in Nature. It made the case that the domestication of wolves first occurred in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. However, that study and others with similar findings failed to include samples from the ASY region in their analysis, according to Savolainen.
No matter how strong the genetic support for dogs’ south-of-the-Yangtze roots, archaeological evidence remains sketchy. The Heredity study’s authors point out that excavations have unearthed remains of domestic dogs from 11,500 years ago in southwest Asia and from 10,000 years ago in Europe, but only from 6,500 years ago in the ASY region. They speculate that “geographical bias” in the archaeological record could account for the discrepancy, and that future digs in the area might corroborate the revised narrative.