Posts Tagged ‘Asian dog domestication’

Dave sent me a link to this study in Heredity that looked a major histocompatibility complex (MHC) variability in domestic dogs.

It found that dogs were so diverse in the MHC in their haplotypes that there had to have been at least 500 wolves in the founding population.

It included 128 Asian dogs in this analysis, and it found that Asian dogs had greater diversity in European dogs, and of course, this leads to people crowing about evidence of an Asian origin for the domestic dog.

Not so fast.

MHC haplotypes have generally been lost as Western dogs have become breeds, and they continue to lose them as popular sire issues stratify the already closed gene pools.

Asian dogs, whether they are construed as breeds or not, have not already undergone this process. Or if they have, they’ve done it for very long.

I am not skeptical of the notion that lots of wolves were used to found the population that became modern domestic dogs.

I am, however, quite skeptical of the hypothesis that dogs originated in East Asia.

It’s much more likely that this was a long process that involved many wolves over a long period of time.

And it happened in many different parts of Eurasia.

Further, it’s also very likely that the dog lineages we have now are but remnants of what once existed. We’ve likely lost y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA lineages,  as well as MHC haplotypes, and because we’re looking at only what exists now, it is actually something a dubious undertaking to try to divine dog origins in this fashion.

We are trying to read backwards through using living dogs, but what we really need are studies of DNA samples from very old specimens– which are not easily procured.

I think the process is likely much more complex than we might like it to be, and it had to have involved the agency of both certain wolves and humans. Without both species exhibit some sort of agency, there would be no domestication of the wolf.

Black-backed jackals have scavenged off of man for a very long time. They have lived in our cities and camps. And they are no black-backed jackals with floppy ears and spots and all the other features we associate with domestication.

For decades, people have looked for simplistic answers to the question about how wolves became dogs.

They’ve not found them.

We’re talking about two species that have pretty complex behavior, and to try to reduce them into a grand theory of domestication is probably not the best way to proceed.

It’s likely far more complex than we can understand at this time (if we can ever understand it at all).



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A taxidermied Happa dog.

A taxidermied Happa dog.

 Small short-faced dogs may be among the oldest forms of dog. These dogs have been found in kitchen middens in the Gobi desert, where ancient people threw their scraps and waste. The dogs have been carbon-dated to as early as 10,000 years ago.  DNA analysis has confirmed that East Asia is the ancestral home of domestic dogs, and other studies have suggested that the Pekingese is one of the oldest breeds.

Now, this finding is kind of interesting. At one time, we thought that dogs were bred for hunting when they were first domesticated. It is now more likely that as dogs evolved from those proto-wolves (the ancestors of modern wolves and dogs) that selection for small size was a very strong impulse. A little dog can live well on feces and bones, if that  is all that is available, and it is unlikely than anyone fed them. However, those that were particularly small or cute may have gotten some choice meat, simply because some of these ancient humans would have been moved by those characteristics. We are profoundly visual species. The peke got its start as a resourceful scavenger that used its “cuteness” as an adaptation to scavenging off of humans.

The dogs eventually became common pets in China and throughout East Asia. Dogs of this type were found in Chinese towns, some with short coats, others with long hair, and some with shih-tzu type hair. When Westerners began to penetrate China, some of the short-haired dogs were imported to Portugal (one of the first European counties to trade there).

These short-haired dogs were then traded in the Low Countries, where they became popular among the growing merchant class there. Those merchants would declare their independence from Spain, and their leader was William of Orange. The Spanish decided to assassinate him. They would have succeeded had William’s pug not alerted his bodyguards, barking that the assassins. The bodyguards dispatched the Spanish agents, thereby saving the Dutch Republican cause. These dogs would evolve into the pug, and because of their association with the Dutch, the dog was referred to as the Dutch Pug.

In China, though, the long-haired dogs  (Pekes and Shi Tzu) were kept in the Forbidden City, while the short-haired “Happa dogs”  could be found outside the city in the homes of lower ranking nobles. The Dowager Empress Cixi kept a pack of these dogs. The dogs had actually been bred from that common little flat-faced dog into a dog that resembled the lion.

The Empress even had a breed standard:

Let the Lion Dog be small; let it wear the swelling cape of dignity around its neck; let it display the billowing standard of pomp above its back.
So shall it remain – but if it dies, remember thou too art mortal
Let its face be black; let its forefront be shaggy; let its forehead be straight and low.
Let it be dainty in its food so that it shall be known as an Imperial dog by its fastidiousness; sharks fins and curlew livers and the breasts of quails, on these may it be fed; and for drink give it the tea that is brewed from the spring buds of the shrub that groweth in the province of Hankow, or the milk of the antelopes that pasture in the Imperial parks.
Let its eyes be large and luminous; let its ears be set like the sails of war junk; let its nose be like that of the monkey god of the Hindus.
Let its forelegs be bent; so that it shall not desire to wander far, or leave the Imperial precincts.
Let its body be shaped like that of a hunting lion spying for its prey.
Let it be lively that it may afford entertainment by its gambols; let it be timid that it may not involve itself in danger; let it be domestic in its habits that it may live in amity with the other beasts, fishes or birds that find protection in the Imperial Palace.
Let its feet be tufted with plentiful hair that its footfall may be soundless and for its standard of pomp let it rival the whick of the Tibetans’ yak, which is flourished to protect the imperial litter from flying insects.
Let it venerate its ancestors and deposit offerings in the canine cemetery of the Forbidden City on each new moon.
And for its colour, let it be that of the lion – a golden sable, to be carried in the sleeve of a yellow robe; or the colour of a red bear, or a black and white bear, or striped like a dragon, so that there may be dogs appropriate to every costume in the Imperial wardrobe.
Let it comport itself with dignity; let it learn to bite the foreign devils instantly.
Thus shall it preserve its integrity and self-respect; and for the day of sickness let it be anointed with the clarified fat of the legs of a sacred leopard, and give it to drink a throstle’s eggshell full of the juice of the custard apple in which has been dissolved three pinches of shredded rhinoceros horn, and apply it to piebald leeches.


Pekes were originally bred to resemble the Buddhist lion and were called Foo dogs.

Pekes were originally bred to resemble the Buddhist lion and were called Foo dogs.



When the Forbidden City was stormed during the Second Opium War, and several of these dogs were sent to Britain. My favorite dog of the ones sent out of the Forbidden City was named “Looty,” and he was given to Queen Victoria.

The dog show was becoming an upper class obsession in Britain, and the rising middle classes were joining them. The Peke, as this rare species from Asia, became a major fad in the dog world. Soon people were breeding Pekes for even more arbitrary standards than Empress Cixi’s.

The Tibetan breeds that are related to the Peke and the Shi Tzu, the Tibetan spaniel are related to these lines. However, the Lhasa Apso and Tibetan terrier are not that closely related the Shi-Tzu, which is really closely related to the Pug and Peke. The Tibetan spanel actually looks like the first Pekes that were imported to the West.

The Japanese Chin was related to these dogs, but it was owned by the rulers of Korea and given as tribute to the Japanese in the period from 700-1000 CE. These dogs were kept by the nobility, too, and were bred smaller than the Chinese dogs. These dogs were also kept in bird cages, which makes sense for dogs that have no real purpose other than pets.

All of these dogs hit the West at a time when dog shows were becoming major events, and these dogs became the stars in these early eugenics competitions.

Queen Victoria had her Pekes, but  Empress Alexandra of Russia had her “Japanese spaniels” (Chin). These were crossed into the once popular English toy spaniels, which originally looked a bit like a Phalene (a drop-eared Papillon), and within a few generations turned that breed into a brachycephalic one.

These dogs have come a long way from the resourceful scavengers they once were. They are quite removed from that animal. The caprice and whims of humans, which had once given them a leg up on other dogs around those ancient camps, may be their ultimate downfall. Modern man has bred these dogs into such flat-faced and crook-legged animals that the number of health problems they suffer from is already hig. And it unfortunately continues to grow every year.

After all of these years of breeding for “cuteness,” this is what the peke now looks like:

Today's Pekingese, now even more exaggerated than it was under Empress Cixi.

Today's Pekingese, now even more exaggerated than it was under Empress Cixi.

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