One of the things we thought we knew about canine domestication has gone to the dogs. A new genetic study shows that several breeds -- such as the Akita and the Shiba Inu -- thought to be genetically closer to dogs tamed thousands of years ago aren't actually 'ancient' at all.
This term 'ancient' is being applied to dogs based on genetic distinctiveness. But really genetic distinctiveness has nothing to do with how ancient they are and everything thing to do with how involved they were in the big Victorian push for dog breeding in the mid-19th century, says Durham University archaeologist Greger Larson.
In a paper published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Larson and an international group of colleagues found that the so-called 'ancient' breeds actually originated from regions where dogs had arrived only very recently.
The team compared genetic data from more than 1,300 modern dogs and 19 wolves to the earliest archaeological dog remains. They focused on little differences in the DNA sequences called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, which occur where a single 'letter' of the genetic code is different between members of the same species.
They found that the only reason that breeds like the Samoyed or the Siberian Husky are more genetically distinct from other dogs is that they were developed outside of the European center of dog breeding.
So the Akita isn't necessarily any closer to the original domesticated dog than the Chihuahua is - it's just the product of a different set of breeding practices than the ones adopted by Europeans that gave rise to many modern pooches.
One of the barriers to tracing the origins of dog domestication is the thin margin of separation between dogs and wolves. Another barrier is the fact that most modern breeds of dog are products of a broad yet shallow gene pool.
Studying dog genetics has yielded numerous insights into modern canines - researchers have been able to pinpoint genes related to coat color, as well as cancer and other diseases.
But that same history leading to current dog breeds that allows us to understand biological questions in modern dogs has restricted our ability to look deeper into the past, Larson says.
However, there are a number of new studies on the horizon examining genetic data from ancient dog remains in greater detail, thanks to recently new sequencing and analysis techniques, according to Larson.
Very soon we will know a heck of a lot more than we did 5 years ago, he says.