One of the most annoying things about “dog people” is the constant jockeying for the prize of the “most ancient breed of dog.” If you watch Westminster on television, I would say a third of the breeds are described as “ancient.”
Most of them aren’t that old, and even if they do resemble ancient forms of domestic dog, the modern day representative often has very little genetic connection to them.
So it was with jaundiced eyes when I saw the latest headline that “The world’s rarest and most ancient dog was discovered in the wild.” The headline is clickbait, of course, because most people don’t have a clue about what was actually found.
Some camera traps caught images of a type of dingo called the “New Guinea Highland Dog,” which is a new name for the “New Guinea Singing Dog.” It is a dingo that lives a semi-feral existence in the highlands of New Guinea. Note that I said “semi-feral,” because different indigenous groups in New Guinea have used these dogs and their descendants for hunting. It lives in the wild, but it can be tamed.
Genetically, these animals are not vastly different from Australian dingoes, which lived in much the same way. They could breed in the wild, but indigenous people used them to hunt things like tree kangaroos.
These dogs exist where there are no wolves and are found in cultures that are mostly involved in hunter-gatherer societies. These animals might give us a window into how hunter-gatherer people in the Paleolithic may have related toward wolves and perhaps give us an insight onto how domestication may have occurred.
But the problem with these dogs is that there are fantastical claims about them. When someone says this is “the most ancient breed of dog” one needs to understand something. The most complete genetic studies we have on dogs have revealed that this type of thinking is quite flawed. One of the big problems is that no domestic dog is more closely related to wolves than any other. The only exception are dogs that have actual modern wolf ancestry.
Dogs are derived from an extinct population of wolves, and yes, a recent genome comparison study says we have to call this ancestor “a wolf” if we are to adhere to cladistic classification. The reason is that dogs split off from Eurasian wolves at about the same time Eurasian wolves split from North American wolves.
Dingoes are commonly used in genetic studies about dogs and wolves. When compared to a large number of samples of different breeds and different wolves, they almost always group with East Asian domestic dogs, as this dingo did with a Chinese street dog.
Another study, which found initially reported dogs originating the Middle East (but has since been retracted in light of more recent evidence), also found that dingoes fit with East Asian domestic dogs.
So the animal that was found in the New Guinea Highlands is a dingo, and a dingo is an East Asian domestic dog that has gone feral.
Now, about the question of this dog being “the most ancient.”
One of the problems with saying a breed is the most ancient, as I pointed out before, is that no breed of dog is more close to modern wolves than any other, and the other major problem with saying a breed is ancient using genetic studies is that many of these so-called “ancient breeds” are actually just populations of domestic dog that have been isolated from the main swarm of dogs. This gives a “breed-like” isolation that confers upon it some antiquity that really doesn’t exist.
Thus, we really can’t say that a breed is the “most ancient,” even with genetic studies.
What I think is more interesting in regard to dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs is that they represent a different permutation of domestication than the bulk of domestic dogs.
Domestication is a cultural process as well as biological. The vast majority of dogs in the world today are street and village dogs, which are very easily tamed if captured at the right age. This is the permutation of dog domestication that arose after the Neolithic Revolution, and it is still the rule when dealing with societies that have not engaged in extensive selective breeding for working characteristics in domestic dogs. We also have a permutation in which free-roaming and freely breeding livestock guardian dogs accompany herds across grazing lands. Any dogs that show aggression towards stock are driven off or killed. Another permutation, which is older than either of these two, are the people who actually rely upon their dogs as hunters. Here, I am thinking of the laikas of Russia, which are used to bay up boar and moose and tree gamebirds and furbearers in much the same way the Jōmon relied upon their hunting dogs for survival.
The Western permutation of dog domestication has been to breed many specialized dog breeds and types. We’ve selected for much higher levels of biddability in some of our dogs. We’ve bred out quite a bit of aggression and predatory behavior. We’ve accentuated certain predatory behaviors, like pointing and retrieving, and we’ve produced dogs that look you right in the eye for approval.
Western dogs have been removed very much from wolves, and from our perspective, it looks like the dogs of different cultures are more ancient than our own. But that’s from our perspective. Our own Eurocentric perspective.
For example, the indigenous people of the Americas were very much involved in producing specialized dog breeds. The Salish bred their own wool dogs. The Tahltan bear dog actually was used to hunt bears, even though it was quite small. The hairless trait that exists in most hairless dogs actually originated in Pre-Columbian Mexico.
The truth is people all over the world have produced dog breeds and types that are distinct. The various forms of dingo that exist in Australasia are exactly the sort of dogs that would occur in hunter-gatherer societies that were not engaged in the selective breeding of working animals. Instead, they are societies that relied upon feral dogs to provide their own hunting dogs, which often reverted back to the feral existence once they hit breeding age.
This is not the permutation of Western dog domestication at all, and because it resembles the ancient way man may have related to wolves, a lot gets read into these dogs.
These dogs aren’t more or less ancient than any other dog on the planet, but they are dogs that give us a glimpse of what might have been.
That is the amazing story.
But, of course, dog people can’t leave an amazing story to be told on its own, so claims about these dogs are made that simply aren’t backed up by serious inquiry and scholarship.
Unfortunately, we’re always going to be dealing with these sorts of clickbait stories about ancient feral dogs, but that’s not what the genetic studies are revealing. And it is quite sad that we’re still dealing with the erroneous Canis hallstromi classification for the New Guinea dingo, as well as its attendant “dogs are not wolves” hypothesis, which has been as thoroughly debunked as the “birds are not dinosaurs” hypothesis.
So it is interesting that the New Guinea dingo still roams in the Highlands, but I wish peole would be very careful of clickbait canid taxonomy.