A Mongolian woman with her caravan of animals about to travel to the Galshar Naadam, Khentii Province, Mongolia.
Richard Manning—Getty Images
By Tanya Basu
October 20, 2015

Dogs haven’t always been man’s best friend, and the question of when they were first domesticated is surprisingly complex. A new study sheds some light on the issue, with an international team of scientists pointing to Central Asia as the the best candidate for the origin of today’s pups.

The study, published Tuesday in the journal PNAS, is the most expansive one to date, using three types of DNA gathered from 161 breeds of 4,500 dogs, along with 549 “village dogs”—street and feral dogs that make up an estimated 75% of the world’s total dog population—from 38 countries.

While it’s long been known that dogs can trace their roots to gray wolves, the new analysis is the strongest indicator yet that modern dogs originated in what is now Nepal and Mongolia, developing into the canines they are today over the course of 15,000 years. The DNA of dogs in nearby areas like East Asia, India and Southwest Asia are extremely genetically diverse, giving scientists confidence to make the claim.

But while the study is impressive for its sheer breadth, scientists are wary of making a definitive statement on dogs’ origins. Previous studies placed dogs’ ancestral tree in other regions like Siberia and Europe, said Adam Boyko of Cornell University and one of the study’s researchers, who called the origins of modern dogs “extremely messy.” Boyko told the New York Times that it was very possible that dogs were domesticated elsewhere before arriving in Central Asia and diversifying into modern canines.

Regardless, the study’s large population sample, including village and feral dogs, is remarkable, representing a clearer picture of dogs and where they come from. As Boyko quipped, “The great thing about working with dogs is that if you show up with food you don’t usually have trouble recruiting subjects. Usually.”

Write to Tanya Basu at tanya.basu@time.com.

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