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Dingo skull, 3D image

A 3D look into the archaeology of the dingo

19 March 2020
On the trail of our native dog

Archaeology PhD candidate Loukas Koungoulas is working to uncover the origins and migration history of Australia's dingo using 3D technology.

One of the lingering mysteries of Australian prehistory is just how our native dog, the dingo, got here.

It has long been understood that it must have arrived after 11,000 years ago, after the formation of the Bass Strait, for it is not found in Tasmania. Yet many underlying complexities to its story remain. Where did it come from? When did it get here? Has it changed since then? And of course – just how different are dingoes to domestic dogs?

For more than half a century scientists have been studying the identity of the dingo through their cranial morphology – aspects of the size and shape of their skulls. Up until now, they’ve used sets of several measurements taken with calipers, to compare dingoes with other similar animals. We’ve learned a lot from this. One main finding is that out of all their possible relatives, dingoes share the closest similarities in appearance with Southeast Asian village dogs. Another is that most dingoes aren’t very much like domestic dogs at all, but some from particular regions of Australia seem to be more dog-like than others.

3D scan views of the skull of a male dingo from Wiluna, at the edge of the Western Desert

3D scan views of the skull of a male dingo from Wiluna, at the edge of the Western Desert.

I first became interested in the archaeology of the dingo as an undergraduate student, hearing that their arrival had a huge impact on the prehistoric Australian natural landscape and the world of Aboriginal people. Prior to that, all I’d known about the topic was the very brief idea, from my high school education, that they came from India.

As it turns out, the University of Sydney has a long history of dingo research: from the pioneering anatomical and archaeological studies conducted by Neil William Macintosh in the 1950s, to the School of Biological Sciences’ more recent work on dingo ecology, taxonomy and genetics.

Now, by using the Department of Archaeology’s Creaform 3D Handyscan I’ve been able to put a novel spin on investigating these old questions. By using the 3D scanner to create digital models, we are able to get a more detailed look at the overall shape of objects at a level that would be very impractical or just not possible with caliper-based measurements.

The method also helps to isolate or remove the influence of size, something also very hard to overcome using the traditional means of recording data. A dingo and a dog with similarly-shaped skulls of different sizes might show up as very separate in a caliper-based assessment, but that connection has a much better chance of being picked up by a 3D-based approach.

Loukas Koungoulas

Loukas Koungoulas uses the Department of Archaeology’s Creaform 3D Handyscan to examine the dingo skull.

I’ve been supported in this endeavour by the Carlyle-Greenwell Research Fund, which has allowed me to travel across Australia to access collections of dingo skulls from different museums, universities, and other wildlife repositories.

Naturally, these tend to draw from their respective states, but some also include specimens discovered in caves and at archaeological sites that often haven’t been studied in the decades since their discovery. And many include animals useful for comparison to dingoes – primarily domestic dogs of various breeds, but also feral and wild dogs from Asia and New Guinea, as well as wolves, jackals, coyotes and foxes.

A few interesting patterns have already made themselves apparent. Perhaps the most interesting is that dingoes from southeastern Australia – particularly from east of the Great Dividing Range, and south of the NSW-Queensland border – seem to share affinities with New Guinea Singing Dogs.

That runs contra to previous thinking based on physical measurements, which never made the connection between the two because dingoes are much larger. But it makes a striking parallel with recent genetic research showing that these dogs are the dingo’s closest living relative, and that southeastern Australian dingoes probably have a closer relationship to them. Perhaps, this recalls their ancestors’ original migration route through New Guinea and along the eastern seaboard of Australia.

Conversely, dingoes from the northwestern parts of Australia, as well as from its dry interior regions, show greater affinities with the wild canids – grey wolves, coyotes, and jackals. Is this because of a different ancestry composition? Or is this perhaps an adaptation to life as an apex predator in Australia’s harsher environments?

Those hypotheses remain to be tested. Its early days yet, but there certainly are indications that the history of the dingo in Australia is a more complex one that is commonly assumed.

This article was first published in Issue 8 of the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry (SOPHI) Magazine.  Loukas Koungoulos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology.