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Rock painting of a dingo and an ancestral figure from the Laura region in Queensland, Australia.

Rock painting of a dingo and an ancestral figure from the Laura region in Queensland, Australia.

Paul Taçon

How did the dingo get to Australia?

Dogs and people have been traveling the world together for possibly 30,000 years, with one exception: Australia. Archaeological evidence, from bones to rock art paintings, suggests that Australia’s native dog, the dingo, didn’t arrive down under until at least 4000 years ago. So who brought them? Two archaeologists think they’ve now identified the likely suspects in the long-running mystery. 

The question is not just a matter of curiosity about dingoes. “For some reason, we know relatively little about this time compared with other regions of the world,” says psychologist Bradley Smith, who specializes in canine behavior and cognition at Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, in Australia and who did not contribute to the study. That means that “understanding the origins of the dingo will shed light on human history in Southeast Asia, the process of dog domestication, and the prehistory of Australia,” adds Mathew Crowther, a wildlife biologist at the University of Sydney also not involved in the study.

There are several groups of people who could have brought the dingo to Australia. Among the front-runners are Indian mariners who may have traveled to Australia, the seafaring Lapita people who spread eastward into the Pacific from East Asia, and traders from Timor and Taiwan who sailed throughout Southeast Asia. A group of maritime hunters and gatherers, called the Toalean, from the southern peninsulas of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, were also on the list.

In their new study, reported in the current edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Melanie Fillios and Paul Taçon at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, and Griffith University, Gold Coast, in Brisbane, Australia, respectively, tried to narrow down the contenders. Using what Smith calls “quite a novel method,” they were the first researchers to tackle the question by combining recent genetic evidence of the evolution of the dingo with archaeological artifacts from Australia and Southeast Asia.

An Australian dingo.

An Australian dingo.

Craig Dingle

From their review of genetic research on dogs and dingoes from seven recent papers, “several common threads” emerged, they write. Although dingoes appear to have evolved from wolves before dogs did, much of their timing and evolution remains uncertain. But, based on the DNA of living wolves, dogs, and dingoes, there’s growing agreement that the animals originated in Asia—likely China—before spreading to Taiwan or to Southeast Asia, they found. That would seem to rule out Indian mariners.

Genetic evidence refines the picture even more. Recent DNA studies, for example, suggest that the animals arrived in Australia from Borneo and Sulawesi between 5000 and 12,000 years ago. Meanwhile, a 2014 report found that dingoes lack multiple copies of a starch digestion gene; their doggie cousins developed multiple copies while living with agricultural people. The fact that dingoes aren’t able to digest starch suggests that before their journey to Australia they were not living with agricultural people such as the mariners from India, or the traders from Taiwan or Timor.

That left the Lapita or the hunter-gatherer Toalean people as the main contenders. However, archaeological evidence from across Australia and Southeast Asia seems to eliminate the Lapita: There is no evidence of Lapita pottery in Australia, let alone the pigs and chickens the people brought with them wherever they traveled. Furthermore, Taçon says the Lapita people first expanded out of Asia 3300 years ago, well after the dingo arrived in the area.

That left the Toalean people. Fillios and Taçon speculate that the Sulawesi hunter-gatherers brought the dingo to Australia 4000 years ago, perhaps after obtaining it from neighbors in Borneo. Here, the archaeological data bolster the case: Similarities in rock art between Sulawesi and Borneo indicate a close connection between the people. What’s more, 8000- to 1500-year-old tools and toolmaking materials unearthed in south Sulawesi confirm that the local hunter-gatherers were able to travel vast distances by sea. “There were strong currents which could have blown their ships to Australia,” Taçon says. He adds that since the 1600s, people from south Sulawesi visited north Australia “until the Australian government forbade it in 1900.”

The work has “clearly refuted” non-Sulawesi origins, Crowther says. Ben Allen, a dingo ecologist with the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, in Australia, agrees. “They’ve done a great job.” Both say that further research with ancient dog/dingo DNA from Sulawesi, nearby Borneo, and Australia could provide conclusive evidence in the whodunnit.