A major international research project may have cleared some of the controversy surrounding the origins of “man’s best friend,” which has until now remained a mystery with two primary hypotheses.
The first holds that humans domesticated dogs for the first time in Europe more than 15,000 years ago.
Opposing researchers believe the domestication happened approximately 12,500 years ago in Central Asia or China.
The new study, published in the American journal Science, suggests both claims might carry weight.
“Maybe the reason there hasn’t been a consensus about where dogs were domesticated is because everyone has been a little bit right,” said Greg Larson, a top Oxford University researcher who helped lead the project.
Researchers used ancient DNA evidence and the archaeological record of early dog species in their research.
The project involved sequencing for the first time the genome of a 4,800-year-old dog at Trinity College in Dublin.
That dog’s bones came from the Neolithic Passage Tomb of Newgrange, Ireland, a contemporary of Stonehenge in England.
The team also used mitochondrial DNA from 59 ancient dogs who lived between 14,000 to 3,000 years ago, comparing the samples to genetic traits of more than 2,500 modern dogs.
Their findings suggest dogs were separately domesticated both in Europe and in Asia, and later mixed as humans migrated across the continent. That would mean most dogs today are a genetic mix of their Asian and European ancestors.
The new hypothesis would explain in part why scientists have had a hard time interpreting previous genetic studies.
“The new model is provocative and exciting,” said John Novembre, a population geneticist at the University of Chicago. “The full collaboration is going to be essential to untangling this complicated story.”
The double origin theory could also suggest that cats and pigs were domesticated multiple times, said Peter Savolainen, a geneticist at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
“If domestication only happened in one place, it was probably a very hard thing to do,” he said. “But if it happened twice, maybe it wasn’t as hard as we thought.”