Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Canoe Conquests of the Western Pacific: Who Brought the Dingo Ancestors, and Why?

That Australian dingoes descended from domesticated dogs was considered a possibility by Hamilton Smith (1856) more than a century and a half ago, and the first plate is one of several paintings of dingoes that he published in his volumes on dogs.

Edward C. Ash (1927, p. 24) described the dingo as follows:

Canis dingo is smaller than the wolf, and has somewhat long legs. It stands 24 inches at the shoulder. The tail is bushy. There is a greyish under-fur, but except in the black variety, the long hairs are generally yellow or white. In the whole family there seems to be a natural tendency for the feet and end of the tail to be white. The muzzle is very often black. It is found in the wooded districts throughout Australia, and was at one time extremely numerous. It runs unlike dogs, the head held up, and the ears erect and forward. In its habit it is far more like the fox than the wolf.”

Genome studies have in fact established that dingoes and New Guinea Singing Dogs are dogs, not wolves or some separate species of canid, and are descended from lines once domesticated though long isolated on large islands. Dingoes and Singing Dogs have formed relationships with the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea, but their separation from other dog populations is much more recent than the arrival of the aboriginal peoples and these connections are unlikely to continue prior domestication behaviors.

So when did dingoes arrive in Australia? When did New Guinea Singing Dogs arrive in New Guinea? Dr. Peter Savolainen and a team addressed this question in a short paper published seven years ago, and he and another team—this one headed by Mattias Oskarsson—have now looked at the issue again. They have also looked at the genetic overlap of dingoes with other dogs in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific.

The problem is to explain not only when dogs arrived on the islands, but also who brought them there. Thus, what the DNA says must be placed in the context about what is known of the cultures that settled on the islands, or at least stopped at them. That the dogs arrived in canoes is generally assumed from the distances involved (Horridge 1995; for depictions of dogs on the canoes that met Captain Cook, see Luomala 1962), but canoe cultures have been present in the western Pacific for thousands of years and making connections between genetic studies of dingoes and cultural anthropological findings remains elusive.

Unfortunately, at least for those looking for firm answers concerning the relationships of dingoes to humans, the paper by Oskarsson et al. may actually increase the number of possibilities concerning who brought the dingoes and when.

Ancient Dogs of Southeast Asia and the Pacific

Australia and New Guinea were colonized by hunter gatherers about 50,000 years ago according to Mulvaney and Kamminga (1999), who themselves cite Jones (1979). A 2002 radiocarbon study of Australian bones by Gillespie concluded that the “oldest occupation horizons in four different regions reliably dated by defendable multi-method results are in the range 42-48,000 calendar years ago.”

Oskarsson et al. note that by 30,000 years ago, colonization “had reached as far into Near Oceania as the Bismarck Archipelago and the western-most Solomon Islands.” Islands further east were not colonized until the Neolithic, which reached western Polynesia about 3,000 years ago and eastern Polynesia only 1,400 years ago.

Neolithic culture developed in the Yangtze Valley about 8,500 years ago, reached Taiwan by 5,500 years ago and Southeast Asia between 4,500 and 3,500 years ago. A “cultural complex” known as Lapita appeared in Near Oceania about 3,500 years ago and spread across Polynesia, reaching New Zealand by 1250 AD. (See Greenhill et al. 2010, discussing Austronesian expansion at 5,200 years ago.)

The dog appears in the archeological record of Australia about 3,500 years ago, where a pre-Neolithic culture received “virtually no influence from external sources.” Oskarsson et al. note that how “the dingo, as the single item of possibly Neolithic origin, arrived to Australia is therefore an enigma.” They note that the spread of dogs in Southeast Asia “in parallel with the spread of Neolithic culture is clearly indicated.”

Dogs were probably present in Taiwan by 4,500 years ago, yet the genetic results of Oskarsson et al. do not find a connection between Taiwanese dogs and the dingoes of Australia and New Guinea Singing Dogs. Bones of domesticated dogs have been excavated in Thailand from 4,000 years ago. (Higham 1996, p. 59, noting that “by at least 2000 B.C., people with dogs domesticated from wolves were already living in the Khorat pleateau.”) Bellwood (2005) describes the distribution of dogs with Austronesian culture:

“All of this leads to the fairly astonishing observation that, between 2000 and 800 BC, assemblages with related forms of red-slipped and stamped or incised pottery, shell artifacts, stone adzes, and keeping of pigs and dogs (neither of these animals being native in most of the regions concerned) spread over an area extending almost 10,000 kilometers from the Philippines through Indonesia to the western islands of Polynesia in the central Pacific.”

Theories regarding the spread of Austronesian culture generally break down to arguments that Austronesians spread out from Taiwan in a relatively short time frame, or that more complex interactions between Southeast Asian cultures and the Pacific Islands occurred over more protracted periods that may have involved a significant infusion from Taiwan. Language studies have pointed to Taiwan, but human DNA studies have found only a minor contribution from Taiwan, pointing instead to “a largely Melanesian ancestry for the Polynesian people.” Regardless of which approach is more descriptive of cultural expansion, the dingo remains a curiosity.

The 2004 study by Savolainen et al. found that pre-European dogs from across Polynesia carried only two haplotypes, and that the Australian dingo population “was founded from a small number of dogs carrying a single mtDNA haplotype (A29).” (See also vonHoldt et al. noting lower diversity of Australian dingoes and New Guinea Singing Dogs.) Two New Guinea Singing Dogs “were shown to carry haplotypes A29 and A79.” A29 is found among East Asian dogs, but is rarely found west of the Himalayas. This earlier study had concluded that dingoes arrived in Australia from 5,000 years ago and perhaps as far back as 10,000 years ago, substantially before the archeological record can verify. (See also Klutsch and Savolainen 2011.)

Mainland Roots of Dingoes

The 2011 study concludes that South China was the probable source population for dingoes and Singing Dogs. Although genetic overlaps of haplotypes were found in mainland Southeast Asia and Indonesia, no overlap was found with samples from Taiwan and the Philippines. Unlike the previous study, the researchers in this one found the time of arrival of dingoes in Australia to be as recent as 4,640 years ago and as far back as 18,100 years ago. They find “a clear indication that Polynesian dogs as well as dingoes and NGSDs trace their ancestry back to South China through Mainland Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Thus, there is no indication that these dogs were introduced via Taiwan and the Philippines together with the expansion of the Neolithic culture and Austronesian languages, as suggested in some theories about Polynesian origins.” This has also been shown to be true of pigs.

This study thus appears to align itself with the school of thought that would argue that Austronesian languages and agriculture originate in Southeast Asia, without mediation through Taiwan. (See discussion in Piper et al. 2009.) If Polynesian peoples originated in Taiwan, the current research concludes that “their Neolithic cultural package was modified en route.” The researchers argue:

“We suggest that, with the evidence on the origins of Polynesian domestic dogs and pigs, a likely scenario for the origins of Polynesians is that farmers spread from Taiwan bringing the Neolithic culture (e.g. pottery) and Austronesian languages, but mixed extensively with local Melanesian populations, and picked up some cultural traits (e.g. the domesticated dog and pig, and the commensal Polynesian rat) … en route. Therefore, the cultural package of the Polynesians was probably formed from different sources, some parts deriving from Taiwan and others incorporated at the spread through Indonesia and Melanesia.”

The researchers speculate that the dingo may have been introduced by indigenous Australians trading with Neolithic groups, perhaps through New Guinea, or trading with pre-Neolithic groups. They argue that a common ancestry of New Guinea Singing Dogs and dingoes is suggested by a number of factors, including genetics and similarities in morphology and behavior. They may have been founded “from very few individuals from the same Indonesian population, but obtained different haplotypes because of founder bottlenecks.” Koler-Matznick et al. (2000) note that blood isoenzymes differ between dingoes and New Guinea Singing Dogs, as well as the fact that dingoes are about twice the size of the latter.

The map shows the general pattern of movement of the predecessors of dingoes from Southeast Asia as posited by Oskarsoon et. al. (Double click to enlarge.)

Reasons for Bringing Dogs in Canoes

Oskarsson et al. found that the founder haplotypes for ancient Polynesian dogs, though not that of dingoes, could also be found in southern China, mainland Southeast Asia, and Indonesia, and as with dingoes, were absent from Taiwan and the Philippines. (One Polynesian haplotype was found in 7% of New Guinea Singing Dogs.) This would seem to indicate a separate migration for the dogs that arrived in Polynesia than that of dingoes, but it may still be useful to consider why dogs would be brought on boats at all, as some of the same uses for the animals were likely to be present. (For a drawing distinguishing the morphology of dingoes from other Polynesian dogs, see Hemmer 2005, p. 33.)

Unfortunately, little can be said about what sort of relationship the predecessors of dingoes had with those who brought them to the islands. As to the current level of domestication, Carl Lumholz, in his book, Among Cannibals (English edition, 1902), states:

“On Herbert river there are rarely more than one or two dingoes in each tribe, and as a rule they are of pure blood. The natives find them as puppies in the hollow trunks of trees, and rear them with greater care than they bestow on their own children. The dingo is an important member of the family•; it sleeps in the huts and gets plenty to eat, not only of meat, but also of fruit Its master never strikes, but merely threatens it. He caresses it like a child, eats the fleas off it, and then kisses it on the snout.

"Though the dingo is treated so well it often runs away, especially in the pairing season, and at such times it never returns. Thus it never becomes perfectly domesticated, still is very useful to the natives, for it has a keen scent and traces every kind of game; it never barks, and hunts less wildly than our dogs, but very rapidly, frequently capturing the game on the run. Sometimes it refuses to go any farther, and its owner has then to carry It on his shoulders, a luxury of which it is very fond. The dingo will follow nobody else but its owner….”

The drawing of a dingo is from Lumholz's fascinating book.

Koler-Matznick et al. (2003) reported that New Guinea Singing Dogs avoid human contact, but when captured as puppies they may be raised to assist in hunts. Some tribes also eat the dogs on occasion. Teeth may be used as ornaments. Gill (1873-4, p. 46) argued that dingoes must have spread from New Guinea to nearby smaller islands where they were sometimes domesticated, but sometimes roamed in destructive packs.

Dogs of the Maoris

The Maori people of New Zealand, who arrived from eastern Polynesia, had many uses for their dogs. Blood taken from the ear of a dog and boiled was a remedy for spear wounds, taken internally or used as a lotion. Balls used in a game played by young women were ornamented with the white hair of a dog. Birds, fish, dogs, and rats were the principal animals in their diet. Dogs were cooked. Dog-skins were used in clothing. Tregear (1904, pp. 166-7) gives the following description:

“The Maori dog (Kuri ruarangi) has now entirely disappeared and it is highly improbable that even the very earliest of the white settlers ever saw the real animal, although doubtless some of its blood was running in the veins of the mongrels that roamed around the native villages. Those seen by Cook, Forster, and others, about the time New Zealand was discovered, were small dogs, something like degenerate sheep-dogs, with large heads, sharply-pierced ears, and a short, flowing tail. It was considered a valuable article of food, being bred for its edible qualities rather than for any other purpose, and as such even appreciated as eking out the slender resources of the explorers with Captain Cook. Crozet described native dogs as looking like domesticated foxes, indeed they would destroy poultry just as foxes do, and he relates that they were fed on fish, and would not be domesticated among white men, whom they would bite on occasion. The skin was highly valued as an article of attire, and a mat of dogskins was a precious possession. The white hair (awe) of the dog's tail was also used as an ornament for the weapons of a chief; the tail of the living animal being kept regularly shaved, and the hair put away for this purpose. The flesh of the dog was not allowed to be eaten by women, and not by men except under certain restrictions.”

Accounts of old natives said that the native dog did not bark, but howled a good deal. Owners prized and petted them and gave each a name. They were sometimes castrated, and were given birds and rats to eat. They were often trained to catch ground game, such as the ground-parrot (kakapo), rails (weka), and apteryx (kiwi). Training the dog was explained by Tregear as follows:

“This was done by the master squatting down, and holding his dog, at the same time giving a cry in imitation of that of the bird, who hearing the cry would come towards the hunter. The little dog was then let go and would catch the bird and hold it or bring it to his master. The dog might get lost through its stupidity, but never ran wild.”

Dogs were taken in canoes to hunt ducks and sent overboard to catch the ducks when the canoes had gotten as close as possible. Kiwi hunting is described as follows:

“The kiwi goes along looking for worms or rather listening for the rustle of the earth-worm underground. When the bird hears the worm creeping below the soil the long beak is prodded down and finds its prey. The kiwi hunter fastened little pieces (patete) of wood to his dogs' neck, so that they would rattle or rustle, and the kiwi would stop to listen, thinking that it heard the worms creeping. Then the dogs would rush in, and the men came forward with torches which they had hitherto concealed. The bird was astounded at the sudden dazzling light, it being a nocturnal bird and not used to the light, so that it was easily killed.”

Dogs even advised when to hunt kiwi: “If a dog twitched or barked in his sleep, you would go hunting with him soon, and he would catch plenty of kiwi (apteryx) for you.”

As mentioned earlier, women could not eat dog flesh, but Tregear reports other restrictions:

“The flesh of the dog was held to be a tapu food, only to be indulged in by certain persons and under certain restrictions. A dog was always killed at the great ceremonies connected with the children of chiefs and on other important and formal occasions, but the priest ate its flesh. A dog was also killed for the tattooer, when he was operating on a chief; but anciently they were kept for sacrifice.”

Theft of a dog could lead to bloodshed. Dogs had a position in the spiritual life of the Maori:

“The spirits of dogs were supposed, like those of men, to pass to the World of Shadows (Te Reinga) but they travelled by a different path than that taken by the souls of human beings. If a dog barked in a certain way at a man it was supposed to denote the death of the person barked at; the god of evil and death (Te Nganahau) inspired the dog to give the warning. Dogs frequently became goblins (taniwha) and sometimes the guardian spirits of certain places. The sacred dog of Maahu lived under the waters of a lake named Te Rotonuiaha, and was a kind of banshee, its bark proceeding from under the water being a warning of the approaching death of a chief.”

The spirits of dogs could pass into other things on death:

“A chief of high descent and great powers had a dog that was killed by a falling tree, and thereon the chief commanded the spirit of the dog to pass into a large tree growing near, and in that tree the spirit dwelt for ages and spoke (in the dog language) to travellers who dared to address it.”

Calling someone a dog was an insult in Maori society:

“The tutelary deity of dogs was Irawaru or Owa, the husband of the sister of Maui the hero, but Irawaru offended Maui who changed him into a dog and then insulted his sister by telling her to call aloud for her husband with the cry 'Moi moi!' the usual call to a dog, and which is even to-day an insult if used to a man.”

The Maoris believed that their ancestors brought dogs on canoes:

“Kupe, one of the legendary discoverers of these islands brought his dogs with him, and not only do the Hokianga natives show some curious markings in stone as being footprints of one of these dogs, but in another place they exhibit a stone into which another of the animals was transformed.”

The plate of the canoe shows a war party that met captain Cook. A detail from the plate shows a dog up close.

Dogs of the Native Hawaiians

Bryan (1915) describes the arrival of dogs on the Hawaiian Islands:

“Just as the Polynesian people carried useful plants with them on their wanderings, they also brought with them in their canoes these two highly-prized and useful domestic animals known to them in their more ancient home…. The Hawaiian dog was fed largely on poi, and was much relished as food in old-time Hawaii. Like the hogs, they were classed according to their color, there being several well-recognized color types.”

As to eating the dog, he states:

“The poi-dog, when carefully fed and fattened on poi, was regarded as even more delicious in flavor than pork. Dogs always formed an important dish at the native feasts and on such occasions large numbers of them would be baked in earth ovens.” Dogs were wrapped in banana leaves and placed on stones that had been heated by wood in a hole. The fat of the pig and dog was used as an illuminating oil.

Hamilton Smith (1840) contains a letter describing the Poe Dog of the Hawaiian Islands (once known as the Sandwich Islands) as follows:

“At the Sandwich group, where the inhabitants have been more remarkable for the use of this animal as food, and where that custom is yet pertinaciously retained (owing probably to the scarcity of swine and spontaneous fruits of the earth), the pure breed of the Poe dog has been better protected; and although becoming yearly more scarce, examples of it are yet to be met with in all the islands, but principally as a delicacy for the use of the chiefs. As late as October 1835, I noticed, in the populous and well civilized town of Honoruru at Oahu, a skinned dog suspended at the door of a house of entertainment for natives, to denote what sumptuous fare might be obtained within.”

Dogs were paid as taxes and tribute. Dogs teeth were worn in bracelets and anklets.


Whereas with many cultures we cannot know if camp following was something that was actively sought by humans, in the islands of the Pacific we can be sure that devoting canoe space to a dog or two meant that they had real value to the ancient travelers. Unfortunately, two very large populations of dogs in Australia and New Guinea have so long been isolated from the cultures that carried them between islands, and the time frame of settlement is so broad, that it is uncertain who brought them or why. They are sufficiently different from the other dogs of the Austronesian expansion that this expansion must have occurred in several distinct periods and geographical areas if dingoes were part of it.

Oskarsson et al., by studying dogs, have made a significant contribution to the study of the settlement and cultures of the western Pacific. It is to be hoped that anthropologists will be able to integrate these results into further research.

The last plate is another of Hamilton Smith's dingoes.

  1. Allen, M.S. (2004). Revisiting and Revising Marquesan Culture History: New Archaeological Investigations at Anaho Bay, Nuku Hiva Island.  The Journal of Polynesian Society, 113(2) (noting dogs were brought to Marquesas Islands by Polynesian settlers perhaps as early as 150 BC).
  2. Ardalan, A., Oskarsson, M.C.R., van Asch, B., Rabakonandriania, E., and Savolainen, P. (2015).  African Origin for Madagascan Dogs Revealed by mtDNA Analysis.  Royal Society Open Science, 2, 150552.  DOI: org/10.1098/rsos.140552 ("A small component of the Madagascan diversity seems to have originated from Europe, probably in the colonial era.  Other genetic contribution from Southwest Asia or India, as may be anticipated considering the long history of seatrade between the African east coast and the Persian Gulf region, and later the Indian subcontinent ... is not indicated but cannot be ruled out.").
  3. Ash, Edward C. (1927). Dogs: Their History and Development, vol. 1. Ernest Benn Ltd., London.
  4. Bellwood, Peter (2005). The First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.
  5. Bryan, William A. (1915). Natural History of Hawaii. The Hawaiian Gazette Co., Honolulu.
  6. Gill, W. Wyatt (1873-4). Three Visits to New Guinea. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 18(1), 31-49.
  7. Gillespie, Richard (2002). Dating the First Australians. Radiocarbon, 44(2), 455-72.
  8. Greenhill, Simon J., Drummond, Alexei J., and Gray, Russell D. (2010). How Accurate and Robust Are the Phylogenetic Estimates of Austronesian Language Relationships. Plos One, 5(3), e9573.
  9. Hamilton Smith, C. (1856). Dogs, vol. I. Lizars, Edinburgh.
  10. Hemmer, Helmut (2005). Domestication: The Decline of Environmental Appreciation. Cambridge University Press.
  11. Higham, Charles (1991). The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia. Cambridge University Press.
  12. Horridge, Adrian (1995). The Austronesian Conquest of the Sea—Upwind. In Bellwood, P., Fox, James J., and Tryon, D. (eds.) The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Australian National University, Canberra (“With the ability to carry fire, family, dogs, chickens, tuberous roots, growing shoots and seeds by sea, the Austronesians eventually occupied the Pacific Islands, travelling into Melanesia about 3500 years ago and onwards into Polynesia.”).
  13. Jones, Rhys (1979). The Fifth Continent: Problems Concerning the Human Colonization of Australia. Annual Review of Anthropology, 8, 445-66.
  14. Klutsch, Cornelya F.C., and Savolainen, Peter (2011). Geographical Origin of the Domestic Dog. Encyclopedia of Life Sciences. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
  15. Koler-Matznick, J., Brisbin Jr., I.L., and McIntyre, J.K. (2000). The New Guinea Singing Dog: A Living Primitive Dog. In Dogs Through Time: An Archaeological Perspective: Proceedings of the 1st ICAZ Symposium on the History of the Domestic Dog. BAR International Series 889.
  16. Koler-Matznick, J., Brisbin Jr., I.L., Feinstein, Mark, and Bulmer, Susan (2003). An Updated Description of the New Guinea Singing Dog (Canis hallstromi, Troughton 1957). Journal of the Zoological Society of London, 261, 109-118.
  17. Koler-Matznick, J., and Stinner, M. (2011). First Report of Captive New Guinea Dingo (Canis dingo hallstromi) Den-Digging and Parental Behavior. Zoo Biology, 30(4), 445-50.
  18. Lumholz, Carl (1902). Among Cannibals: An Account of Four Years' Travels in Australia and of Camp Life with the Aboriginees of Queensland. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
  19. Luomala, Katharine (1962). Additional Eighteenth-Century Sketches of the Polynesian Native Dog, Including the Maori. Pacific Science, 16 (April).
  20. Mulvaney, Derek John, and Kamminga, Johan (1999). Prehistory of Australia. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
  21. Oskarsson, Mattias C.R., Klutsch, Cornelya F.C., Boonyapracob, Ukadej, Wilton, Alan, Tanabe, Yuichi, and Savolainen, Peter (2011). Mitochondrial DNA Data Indicate an Introduction through Mainland Southeast Asia for Australian Dingoes and Polynesian Domestic Dogs. Proceedings of the Royal Society B (doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.1395).
  22. Piper, Philip J., Hung, Hsiao-chun, Campos, Fredeliz Z., Bellwood, Peter, and Santiago, Rey (2009). A 4000 Year-Old Introduction of Domestic Pigs into the Philippine Archipelago: Implications for Understanding Routes of Human Migration through Island Southeast Asia and Wallacea. Antiquity (September 1, 2009).
  23. Savolainen, P., Leitner, T. Wilton, A.N. Matisoo-Smith, E., and Lundeberg, J. (2004). A Detailed Picture of the Origin of the Australian Dingo, Obtained from the Study of Mitochondrial DNA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(33), 12387-12390.
  24. Tregear, Edward (1904). The Maori Race. A.D. Willis, London.
  25. vonHoldt, Bridgett M., Pollinger, John P., Lohmueller, Kirk E., et al. (2010). Genome-wide SNP and Haplotype Analyses Reveal a Rich History Underying Dog Domestication, Nature, vol. 464(8).

Thanks to Richard Hawkins and Brian Duggan for suggestions.

1 comment:

  1. A 2013 paper by a number of scholars associated with the University of California at Davis and other institutions, headed by Benjamin Sacks and Sarah Brown, found that early dogs in Thailand, Brunei, Bali, and the Philippines likely came from a Southeast Asian source, while dingoes and New Guinea Singing Dogs probably arose directly from Taiwan. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 30(5), 1103-11118. These findings will either be added to this blog or become the subject of anther one in time.