Chinese Shar Pei – Most Ancient Breed of Dog?
I was recently reading the article “Genetic Structure of Purebred Domestic Dog” from a 2004 edition of the journal Science (I have never disputed my interests have a geek bent.) As a former Chinese Shar Pei owner and breeder I was, I admit, a little delighted to see that genetic studies have established that the Shar Pei is in fact the oldest breed currently known (or to be precise — of all known breeds tested has shown to be the earliest split off from the Wolf…but let’s not pick nits.)
For those of you who aren’t as geeky or as into breed history the obvious response is, so what…? For those of us who amongst other things admire the ancient roots of some breeds, there has been some controversy over the years — bear with me here I’ve already admitted we’re dog geeks! — about which breed is really really old, and which is oldest. Now it hasn’t been disputed that the Chinese Shar Pei is really really old, but a lot of the hound people were claiming that it was in fact hounds like the Ibizan and Afghan that were oldest. To which scientific studies currently allow me to politely respond – in your face!
Yes, alright, the Afghan is an ancient breed…even if not the most ancient…but it turns out that some breeds who thought they were ancient are actually – uhoh – slightly more modern recreations of ancient breeds. In other words, yes, there are Ibizan like hounds in ancient art but the Ibizan in your living room isn’t related to them. The breed was recreated based in part on fanciers who were inspired by that ancient art.
Interestingly, and perhaps not too surprising if you think about it, the most ancient breeds are from China followed by Africa – the Basenji is the most ancient non-Chinese dog. There are other very old breeds. From China the Chow Chow, from Japan the Shiba Inu and Akita, from Arctic north the Siberian Husky and the Alaskan Malamute, and from the Middle East, the Afghan and the Saluki.
What about the smaller dogs? The most ancient breeds are the closely related Shi Tzu, Pekingese, and Lhasa Apso and the closely related terriers the West Highland White and the Cairn. The closeness of these two sets of related breeds is speculated to come from a shared ancestor that is no longer necessarily known having died out due to famines, disease, or even, I would speculate, a lack of popularity compared to some of their smaller, more specialized and perhaps more desirable offspring.
West Highland White Terrier
Of course, these genetic tests are not the final say on the matter and further testing — when someone finally gets around to it — may turn up some new interesting information. For example, I strongly suspect the rare and thus untested New Guinea Singing dog is certainly an ancient breed. Do they even predate all other breeds of dogs? There is a wide geographic distribution of similar kinds of “yellow dog” around the world and perhaps this is a prototype of dog that predates all of the “purebred” dogs we now live with.
Afghan Hound pup
These very old breeds of “yellow dogs” share some common physical traits — medium sized, wedge shaped heads, perk ears, curl tails, square build — and in many locations these may be regional variations on one of the domesticating steps that happen somewhere along the way between creating a dog from a wolf. A lot more genetic testing will be necessary before that can be stated with certainty.
Note – it isn’t an accident that when selecting pictures today most of those selected were of cream/tan variations of the breed — this is considered one of the most dominating/common colors in many breeds–sled dogs like the Husky and Malamute maintaining the ‘wolf grey’ as a most common color — and if you look at the pictures, can you begin to see some commonailties that might be shared with these more familar breeds and the more genereic but geographically common “yellow dog”…? Perk ears, or curl tails, or base color….
Chinese Shar Pei
In the meantime, Shar Pei lovers get to take a little pride in co-habituating with possibly the earliest breed developed specifically to live with people. Just in case that means anything to you 🙂