Ever wonder how your dog came to be such a lovable, dependable friend? New evidence shows that her path to that comfortable dog bed started somewhere in the Middle East and not East Asia as previously thought. The New York Times reports that researchers have developed a new genetic map for dogs by borrowing methods developed to study the genetics of human disease. Further, this research shows a link between humankind’s settlement into an agricultural society and the time animals first entered human company, both around 10,000 years ago.

A team of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, studied a comprehensive collection of wolf and dog genomes from all over the globe. They found that in the Middle East, the genomes between wolves and dogs were most alike. Archeological evidence in the area also supports this theory. This revelation is exciting to biologists because it allows them to track canine’s first contact with hunter-gatherers to the lap dogs developed by dog fanciers of today.

Dogs are believed to have evolved from the wolves that used to follow packs of nomadic humans, probably to eat the scraps left behind from hunter-gatherers. Researchers believe that the smaller, less-threatening wolves may have evolved into a co-dependent status with people — in exchange for a built-in guard system, they received food. In fact, researchers think dogs may have become the first items of inherited wealth, laying the groundwork for social hierarchy in human societies.

When humans began to settle down into communities, they also began to breed the first dogs. Experts say they picked the smaller, more complacent wolves and continually “downsized” them into dogs. Robert K. Wayne is one of the researchers on the project. As he told the NY Times, “I think a long history such as that would explain how a large carnivore, which can eat you, eventually, became stably incorporated in human society.” 

Wayne, together with colleagues Bridgett M. vonHoldt and Elaine Ostrander, used previously decoded dog genomes to set the study base for the dogs. DNA collected from wolves worldwide was used for the wolves. They found that breeds stuck together on the genetic family tree — herding dogs grouped together, as did hounds and so on. It also showed that some dogs have genes for excessive gregariousness, while all dogs evolved genes for understanding human cues. Wolves do not have this gene.

Dogs were previously thought to have evolved out of East Asia. This was based on mitochondrial DNA that concluded that dogs had been domesticated in that area. Some experts say this new study has its flaws, citing the work of  archaeologists in China who have been less interested in distinguishing dog and wolf remains. But others feel that it conclusively proves the emergence of dogs from the Middle East. As dog genetics expert Stephen O’Brien wrote in an email to the NY Times, “I think they have nailed the locale of dog domestication to the Middle East.”

For further reading: New finding puts origin of dogs in the Middle East