The concept of dog breeds is largely a man-made construct; it is humanity that divided dogs up into individual breeds and selectively mated only dogs from within a narrow gene pool of dogs that share common traits, in order to produce breeds that are recognisable by name and distinctive from others.
However, even before humans became involved in canine eugenics by means of selective breeding, dogs in different areas of the world had already begun to evolve in their own distinctive ways, restrained by the natural sea borders of different continents and the geographical challenges of roaming widely across land areas. This means that many countries have their own signature dog breeds and types that reflect the evolution of canids in that region, and that often reflect the challenges of living within certain climates. Ergo, dogs from hot countries tend to be shorthaired and capable of tolerating heat and sun, while dogs from colder countries are apt to be longer haired, with thick coats to keep them warm in the winter.
As our understanding of genetics, migration and evolution have improved across the last few decades, our interest in the evolution of dogs has been piqued too, and a significant amount of research and study now goes into mapping the evolution of dogs, and tracing today’s dog breeds back to their original ancestors.
This has told us an awful lot about our favourite pets and also in some areas, informed us that our historical understanding of canine evolution has not always been accurate; for instance, it used to be widely believed that domestic dogs evolved from wolves.
Yet now, we know that while both wolves and dogs do share a common genetic ancestry, they diverged much further back in history than we initially thought, and wolves have evolved along a very different path to that of dogs, indicating that they are not as closely related as we once thought.
Studying the genotype of a large sample of dogs of different breeds as well as that of the wolf has indicated that after dogs and wolves parted ways on the evolutionary timeline, nine specific breeds of dog extant today remain genetically distinct from each other and other dog breeds too, whilst 99% of all of the remaining dog breeds are genetically similar enough to be grouped together.
In this article, we will take a quick look at these nine ancient breeds, and their traits and origins. Read on to learn more.
The Shar pei is the well-known breed with very wrinkled skin, which originated in China.
The breed’s origins lie in the natural crossing of mastiff-type dogs with Nordic hounds, and the Shar pei in its current form has a recorded history going back for several centuries. Whilst the breed can be traced back to a crossing in the first instances, the breed is genetically diverse enough to be noticeably genetically different from 99% of other dogs.
The Shiba Inu is a dog of the spitz type that hails from Japan, and is one of the basal breeds that pre-dates the modern breed designations that came into being during the 19th century, as well as having been formative in the creation of several of today’s modern breeds.
However, this ancient breed almost became extinct during the Second World War, and they are still less common today than they have been for most of their history.
The Chow Chow is another breed from the Far East, being China in this case. Studying the genetic material of the Chow Chow indicates that they are one of the very first breeds to have diverged from the common ancestor to dogs and wolves, evolving in their own unique way that is once more, distinct from that of over 99% of other dogs.
The Akita Inu, also known as the Japanese Akita, is one of the oldest native dog breeds with ancestry from the Matagi dog, which has since received some level of dilution from various breeds including mastiffs, the Great Dane and the St. Bernard. However, despite these similarities and in some cases, common ancestors, the lineage of the Akita Inu pre-dates modern breeds, and indicates genetic divergence from the other recognised ancient breeds.
The Basenji originated from the continent of Africa, and was originally worked as a hunting dog from its earliest history with humans. They have a distinctive yodelling-sounding bark that cannot be mistaken once heard, and once more, is a basal breed that pre-dates modern breeds and is thought to have initially begun to evolve in Southeast Asia.
The Siberian husky is a large, energetic spitz-type dog that descended from the Eskimo dog or Qimmiq, as did the Alaskan malamute and the Samoyed. This breed also has a trackable history in Asia, as these dogs were historically used as sled dogs traversing the frozen North of Siberia and Alaska, and the Great North Passage.
The Alaskan malamute, as mentioned above, shares a common ancestor with the Siberian husky, being the Qimmiq dog. However, despite their common ancestry, they remain genetically divergent to other breeds today, taking their place alongside of the husky with their own line on the evolutionary ladder as a basal or ancient breed in its own right.
The Afghan hound is a sighthound breed that hails from Afghanistan, and they are very distinctive with their elegant, long flowing coats. The breed is most closely related to the Saluki, but remains distinct even from the Saluki on a genetic level, as another basal breed.
Finally, the Saluki itself, whilst related to the Afghan hound, is another basal breed that evolved geographically and with little to no human input prior to the 19th century. This breed again split from the wider gene pool of most modern dogs in the fourth major division of the timeline, when the Afghan hound and Saluki went their separate ways, as it were.
Pottery and artwork going back over 6,000 years shows imagery of dogs very similar to the modern Saluki in the areas of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt!