National Geographic Daily News
Photo of a gray wolf in Germany.

A Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) on a moss-covered rock in the Bavarian Forest, Bavaria, Germany.

Photograph by Robert Seitz, imagebroker/Corbis

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published November 14, 2013

Man's best friends may have started off as European gray wolves, according to scientists whose research is challenging earlier thinking around where and why dogs became domestic animals.

The finding, detailed in this week’s issue of the journal Science, challenges past research that had placed dog domestication in East Asia or the Middle East and that had linked the phenomena to the rise of agriculture.

“Other wild species were domesticated in association with the development of agriculture and then needed to exist in close proximity to humans. This would be a difficult position for a large, aggressive predator,” study co-author Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement.

In the new research, a team led by evolutionary geneticist Olaf Thalmann of Finland's University of Turku used DNA analysis techniques to determine the origins of the first tamed wolves.

The scientists collected DNA from 18 mostly European ancient canid samples, eight of which were classified as doglike and ten that were wolflike. They compared the ancient DNA to samples gathered from 77 dogs from a wide variety of breeds; 49 modern wolves from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere; and four coyotes.

From Scavenger to Protector

The researchers found that the DNA of modern dogs most closely matched that of ancient wolves from Europe, indicating that dog domestication began there. They also concluded that dogs are descended from a population of ancient European wolves that are now extinct.

"We found that instead of recent wolves being closest to domestic dogs, ancient European wolves were directly related to them," Wayne said.

"This brings the genetic record into agreement with the archaeological record. Europe is where the oldest dogs are found."

The dog fossils used in the study are dated to 19,000 to 32,000 years ago, around the time that hunter-gatherers were living in Europe.

Initially, wolves could have scavenged off the carcasses of wooly mammoths and other large megafauna that the human hunter-gatherers killed, Wayne told National Geographic.

As they became domesticated, Wayne says, tamed wolves could have returned the favor by protecting their masters against dangerous predators, or by helping with the hunt.

Once or Multiple Times?

Brian Hare, director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, said the findings make sense based on what scientists know about early human migration. (Related: "Opinion: We Didn’t Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us.")

"Humans and wolves would have first interacted as modern humans left Africa around 40–50,000 years ago and entered the Middle East and Europe," said Hare, who was not involved in the research.

Searching for Ancient DNA

It's unclear from the new study whether dog domestication began in one group of European hunter-gatherers and then spread or happened in multiple groups simultaneously.

"Both scenarios seem plausible," Thalmann said.

Adam Boyko, a computational biologist at Cornell University who has studied genetic diversity in dogs, said scientific evidence suggests that dogs were domesticated in a single part of the world, as opposed to it happening separately on various continents.

He said the new study makes a good case for that origin being in or near Europe.

Boyko added, however, that he is waiting to see if follow-up studies that use other genetic markers, particularly nuclear DNA, reach the same conclusion.

The study by Thalmann's group compared the mitochondrial DNA of the animals, which is abundant in ancient remains. Unlike nuclear DNA, which is found in the cell nucleus and inherited from both parents, mitochondrial DNA is passed down only through the maternal line, from mother to offspring.

UCLA’s Wayne said his team has tried and failed to gather nuclear DNA from ancient canine, but they are not giving up: “It is something we will do in the future.”

Follow Ker Than on Twitter.

Inés Ferreyra
Inés Ferreyra

Muy interesante. Los perros y nosotros tenemos, después de todo, una larga historia juntos.

roy pettus
roy pettus

alarm systems!    the wolves hanging around the hunter-gatherer camps would have alerted the humans in the camp when intruding' dangerous animals were near camp.  just like the baboons living on town dumps in north Africa kidnap junkyard dog puppies and raide them fo sentries.



Interesting; not really 'new' but still interesting.

- I do wonder though would any of the research findings from the  fox domestication    experiment in Russia  would play into this though.

Fioda Zheng
Fioda Zheng

I haven't read their research yet ,but  from this article I know that the DNA of 18 ancient canid samples are MOSTLY  from Europe . 

So, are there any DNA of ancient canid samples from East Asia ?

If not ,how can they say that the DNA of modern dogs are much more closely matched with that of ancient wolves from Europe. There are no comparison, right? 

Harold Welch
Harold Welch

I've raised 2 wolves, had a litter with 7 cubs, sold 5, one died, raised one -  A wolf I named Silvie.  Silvie lived with us for 11 yrs.  She died in my arms.  I'll never forget her.  She was a part of our family.

Sarfraz Khan
Sarfraz Khan

i am new here dont know where to start to explore site

jim adams
jim adams

20 or more years ago, i saw a Nat Geo photo of a Yanomami (i think) woman breast feeding a piglet, and the article said that women breast fed a number of the young animals the hunters brought back from their hunts. This is (mostly) a way to raise food to an age when there is more meat on their bones.

This is the kind of thing hunter gathers (villagers too)  from all over the world would do. Raising them to at least a young adult stage and finding they could pull sleds, or travois or carry packs, or help with hunts seems very likely. It is also just as likely (or more likely) that they did as southeast currently Asians do -- make them into soup or stew. At that point, they are domesticated animals like sheep, cattle, etc. tho not yet at the stage of being pets.

Nikola Rupcic
Nikola Rupcic

Po ovome znači da su se ljudi i psi zbližili u razdoblju između 30.000- 50.000 godina!! Ja imam osjećaj da njihovo druženje- prijateljevanje traje mnogo duže, odnosno kad je čovjek stao na dvije noge!!! 

Gangadharan Pulingat
Gangadharan Pulingat

wonderful findings about the dogs and their domestication.  Thousands of years back they are with us and today also they are accompanying the humans and enjoying their life . 

Loren Dobson
Loren Dobson

Dogs Decoded, the NOVA special (which aired in 2010 and wasn't original research) stated that all domestic dogs are absolutely descended from grey wolves as was shown by DNA analysis. So this hardly seems like a "new" theory to me.

Lawrence Muhr
Lawrence Muhr

The evolution of dogs from wolves is predictable, but the vast variety of dogs still blows my mind.  I'm not saying the scientists are in error but that in is incredible.  Where the wolf/dog started to connect to man, seems correct also.  Predators follow the food, man also is a predator and a pack animal as is the wolf.

Robert Barnes
Robert Barnes

Very interesting.  Of course we've know about the theory of dogs being the decendents of domesticated wolves but we never knew where they were domesticated first.  Quite enlightening.

eesha is off to harvard
eesha is off to harvard

Considering they undoubtedly had uncontrolled rabies epidemics, it's a wonder they were ever domesticated.

Eugene Whocares
Eugene Whocares

That's the *new* theory? What's the old one then? This new theory seems like a pretty obvious one, curious to find out what the other theory is.

Aldus Manutius
Aldus Manutius

@Harold Welch That must have been so beautiful. I love  wolves. I have dogs but the wolf is the real symbol of the wild nature.

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

@jim adams its an interesting idea but we must consider the possibility that dogs may been domesticated more than once. In asia, smaller breeds like the shiba ink were most likely developped for food but dogs may also have been important in herding sheep. 

In the united states, native americans where known to have a rare, now extinct breed known as a Salish wool dog raised for its fur to be used in this case there was probably no time in which the dogs were eaten because their coats were too valuable.

Brian Neufeldt
Brian Neufeldt

@Eugene Whocares 

The original theory was that domestication occurred in the Middle East or

eastern Asia. This was clearly stated in the second paragraph.

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