Modern-day dingoes already established across Australia thousands of years ago, research finds

<span>Dingoes arrived in Australia between 3,000 and 8,000 years ago, according to new research.</span><span>Photograph: Chris Putnam/Alamy</span>
Dingoes arrived in Australia between 3,000 and 8,000 years ago, according to new research.Photograph: Chris Putnam/Alamy

Scientists have for the first time recovered DNA from the remains of dingoes between 400 and 2,700 years old to find the predator’s population was well established across the Australian continent thousands of years ago.

According to the researchers, modern dingoes share little genetic ancestry with domestic dogs introduced into Australia from Europe but are instead descended from ancient dogs and wolves from China and the Tibetan plateau. Dingoes were closely related to modern New Guinea singing dogs, the research confirmed, with both sharing a common ancestor.

Dingoes arrived in Australia between 3,000 and 8,000 years ago, the research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said, and probably came with Pacific traders on boats.

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Scientists gathered ancient DNA from the remains of dingoes held in museums, recovered from Indigenous sites around Sydney and from caves in South Australia and south-west Western Australia.

Dr Sally Wasef, an expert on ancient DNA from the Queensland University of Technology and a lead author of the research, had the job of cutting the ancient specimens – mostly bone and teeth – for DNA analysis.

She said she was amazed when the results of carbon dating found several of the east coast specimens were between 700 and 2,700 years old.

“I thought they were fresh samples so I was really shocked,” said Wasef, who has done previous genetic work on Indigenous remains, Egyptian mummies and world war victims.

“We have to respect these ancient remains because they are telling us a story,” she said.

The DNA analysis, including 42 ancient specimens, found the dingo established two distinct regional populations, split roughly along the Great Dividing Range.

Wasef said previously, it had been thought this division had formed during post-colonial human activity.

Dr Yassine Souilmi, of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and Environment Institute and also a lead author of the study, said two genetically distinct groups also pre-dated the rabbit- and dingo-proof fence.

“We know that distinction goes back at least 2,500 years,” he said.

“We hope people making decisions about dingoes today now see these amazing animals have been around a long time, and had time to harmonise with the environment.”

The modern K’gari dingoes analysed had no domestic dog ancestry.

Genetic analysis found the ancient dingoes found in an Indigenous rock shelter at Curracurrang and modern dingoes living in alpine areas of Victoria and southern New South Wales were especially close to the New Guinea singing dog.

The ancient dingo remains from Curracurrang and Sydney’s Balmoral beach had been held at the Australian Museum, the former since the 1960s.

Prof Jane Balme, of the University of Western Australia and a co-author, said those ancient dingoes were likely companions to Aboriginal people and at Curracurrang had been deliberately buried in a rock shelter.

Related: Research suggests that more than half of Australia’s dingoes are genetically pure, not hybrids

Prof Alan Cooper helped recover samples from caves in South Australia’s Nullarbor which, he said, were littered with mummified dingoes that had either fallen into pitfall entrances or pursued prey, such as kangaroos, into the caves.

Cooper, an evolutionary biologist at Charles Sturt University, said: “There are thousands of caves and probably thousands of dingoes. Because it’s so dry they mummify, and are really well preserved as a result.

“You get beautifully laid out specimens and you can choose dense bones and get very good genetic information from them.”

He said the study raised an intriguing question of why there was so little mixing between dingoes in the west and in the east but also suggested there were likely two waves of dingo introductions into Australia.

Cooper is trying to work out if the introduction of the dingo into Australia pushed the thylacine and Tasmanian devil to extinction on the Australian mainland – a question which the study can not rule out.

Dingoes are sometimes referred to as wild dogs in the context of controlling their numbers. Ongoing DNA studies have shown almost all dingoes retain their ancestry, rather than being hybrids.

Prof Mike Letnic, a dingo expert at the University of NSW but who was not involved in the study, said the findings were “great news” because they “put to bed the idea that dingoes are hybrids with no conservation value”.

“The results add weight to efforts to conserve dingoes because it shows that they are a distinct group and that there has been much less hybridisation than was previously thought.”