The myth of ancient origins


If there is one thing that is consistent among purebred animals, it must be the desire for ancient – and preferably exotic – origins. The latest and greatest may be desirable with high tech equipment, but we seem to prefer our horse and dog breeds well-aged. In the past I have enjoyed giving a presentation that pokes a little fun about breed mythologies. I am fortunate that my audiences have, so far at least, all been good sports, because this can be a rather touchy subject for a lot of people.

That is unfortunate, because many of the accepted stories about the origins of various breeds have not held up to closer scrutiny. As geneticists continue to analyze different populations, it is becoming clear that some populations are not remnants of an ancient group, but rather relatively modern attempts to recreate those animals – or in some cases, a romantic notion of what those animals might have been like. For those that do not have a strong attachment to the original stories, the truth can be far more interesting.

That is certainly true for the research being done by the Village Dog Genetic Diversity Project headed up by scientists at Cornell University. They have been collecting samples from hundreds of semi-feral dogs in remote areas in Africa. Their findings have been somewhat surprising.

African village dogs are not a mixture of modern breeds but have directly descended from an ancestral pool of indigenous dogs

Meanwhile, modern breeds that have been thought to descend from African populations, like the Pharaoh Hounds (above, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) and the Rhodesian Ridgeback, clustered with Western breeds.

These results are consistent with [previous results] showing that Salukis, Afghan hounds, and Basenjis cluster with ancient, non-European breeds, while Pharaoh hounds and Rhodesian ridgebacks do not. Although this coarse sampling (3 countries) is suitable for detecting truly indigenous versus reconstituted ancestry in putatively African breeds, analysis including village dogs from more regions will be necessary to better localize the ancestral origins of these breeds.

What is interesting is that two of the three modern breeds noted as clustering with the non-European dogs – Salukis and Basenjis – still allow crosses to newly imported stock. (More information on that is available on the new Genetic Diversity page.)

This study is reminiscent of the one done a few years ago on the origins of the Arabian Horse. The author of that study, “Speculations on the origin of the Arabian Horse breed“, found persuasive evidence that the modern Arabian was as much a Victorian construct as it was a uniquely pure, ancient breed.

These results permit formulating the hypothesis that the Arabian horse breed was created from many different breeds and populations, and the concept of breed purity, might refer, at most, to the present population with a history that does not exceed two hundred years

Obviously there are not many ideas more scandalous in equine circles than Arabians being created “from many different breeds and populations” with a history that does not exceed 200 hundred years (ie., 1809). To imagine that carefully preserved purebreds are mongrels, while feral dogs bred without any human selection in the streets of Africa are free from outside “taint” and “pure” descendants of ancient ancestors, really does turn what we think we know about our animal companions on its head.

Edited to link to the full version of the Głażewska “Arabian origins” paper.

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5 Responses to The myth of ancient origins

  1. Claudia October 23, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    What an interesting blog this is! I’ve been interested in horse color genetics for about 2 years or something, since I started drawing horses for a horse sim game of a friend of mine, and we’re trying to get the colors for the breeds realistic. Trying to keep learning. So thought I’d leave a comment, even if it’s the middle if the night here, haha.

  2. Elaine Lindelef October 24, 2012 at 2:02 am #

    I’m with you: the truth is more interesting than the mythology. Or perhaps rather, the two combined and how one led to the other is the most interesting bit of all.

  3. peg4x4 October 24, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    This is such an interesting blog!
    I wonder what breeds were used to get the Pharaoh Hounds? They are unusual.

  4. dakota328 October 24, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    Forgive me as I am severely needing sleep and this may be utterly incorrect (if it even makes sense to read), however, I am wondering if this is something similar to the ‘back breeding’ program in Russia to ‘back breed’ to reproduce the Tarpan which resulted in a few different breeds, some of which people claim to be Tarpans nowadays. These people claiming some of these horse breeds (the konik and heck horse are the only ones coming to mind but I think there were a few more that came from this program) are Tarpans would be like these people claiming these dogs are from ancient ancestry even though they are from far more modern breeding programs, and possibly these breeding programs were to reproduce these ancient breeds that they are claiming the bloodlines these dogs come from such as what is seen with the results of the ‘Tarpan Program’?

  5. Jacqueline Ferrigno October 29, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    This comment isn’t in response to this journal, but wasn’t sure where to put it LOL. But I was wondering if you had ever read Deb Bennett’s book called Conquerors? It was recommended to my by Dr. Gus Cothran when I was doing a presentation on Caribbean Horses. I wasn’t able to get the book in time for the presentation, but it just arrived today. It’s a really wonderful read judging by what I skimmed so far, and there is some interesting notes on patterns and colors. The book is out of print unless you order it though the publishing company, and it was under $30 from them. The book discusses how horses came to the new world and the breeds that derived directly from them.