Dingoes originated in China 18,000 years ago

By Natalie Muller 13 September 2011
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The dingo came to Australia via southern China, and much earlier than previously thought, says new research.

THE DINGO (Canis lupus dingo) first appeared in Australia’s archaeological records in 3500-year-old rock paintings in the Pilbara region of WA, but the new evidence suggests they were roaming Australia long before that.

DNA samples from domestic Asian dog species and the Australian dingo have shed light on how the iconic canine arrived on Australian soil.

According to a study by an international research team, genetic data shows the dingo may have originated in southern China, travelling through mainland southeast Asia and Indonesia to reach its destination anywhere between 4600 and 18,300 years ago.

Dingo theory debunked

Published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the study also debunks the previously held belief dingoes travelled to Australia via Taiwan and the Philippines, making several sea crossings.

“Clearly, the land route is much more feasible for dogs than the sea route,” says Dr Alan Wilton, a geneticist from the University of NSW, Sydney, and one of the researchers involved in the study.

The research also suggests the New Guinea singing dog, a smaller version of the dingo, travelled along the same land route to arrive in New Guinea.

The geneticists took mitochondrial DNA samples from more than 900 domestic dogs across Asia  – south China, southeast Asia, Indonesia, New Guinea, the Philippines and Taiwan – as well as pre-European samples from Polynesia and the Australian dingo, to make genetic comparisons.

The results show domestic dogs came from southern China over 10,000 years ago. The most likely story, say the researchers, is that dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs then dispersed to their destinations via a separate route to the dogs that arrived with Polynesia’s first people 3000 years ago. They also made the journey much earlier.

(Photo: Bradley Smith)

Dingo from the Fraser Island population

Dingo enigma solved

“This is huge for the dingo. This study really confirms an enigma which has been with us with dingos all the time: where did the animal come from, or more specifically, how did it get here?” says Lyn Watson, co-founder of the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre near Melbourne. “We never really bought the story that it came by boat.”

Dr Bret Heath, a biologist from Central Queensland University, says while the study doesn’t fill all the gaps in our knowledge about how the dingo made it to Australia, the DNA evidence is compelling: “Mitochondrial DNA is most useful in studies of closely related organisms in low abundance, possibly adapting rapidly to new or different habitats – and hence displaying a rapid mutation rate.”

Dingo arrival sheds light on human evolution

Perhaps the most important element of the study, says Bret, is the light that it sheds on the human origins of the Polynesian culture.

Despite a sparse archaeological record for dog species in southeast Asia and Polynesia, there is a direct link between the spread of the Neolithic culture, Austronesian languages and the arrival of dogs in the region. But the researchers claim the dingo arrived in Australia before the Neolithic period, possibly during early trade between pre-Neolithic groups.

“The dispersal of dogs is also linked to the human history of the region,” they write, which may add to our knowledge about “the geographical origins of the Polynesian population and its Neolithic culture, and the extent of contact between the pre-Neolithic cultures of Australia with the surrounding world.”

They admit there is more work to be done to find out how the dingo was introduced to Australia, and whether it arrived as a domestic or wild dog.