A New Origin Story for Dogs

Jun 4, 2016

By Ed Yong

Tens of thousands of years ago, before the internet, before the Industrial Revolution, before literature and mathematics, bronze and iron, before the advent of agriculture, early humans formed an unlikely partnership with another animal—the grey wolf. The fates of our two species became braided together. The wolves changed in body and temperament. Their skulls, teeth, and paws shrank. Their ears flopped. They gained a docile disposition, becoming both less frightening and less fearful. They learned to read the complex expressions that ripple across human faces. They turned into dogs.

Today, dogs are such familiar parts of our lives—our reputed best friends and subject of many a meme—that it’s easy to take them, and what they represent, for granted. Dogs were the first domesticated animals, and their barks heralded the Anthropocene. We raised puppies well before we raised kittens or chickens; before we herded cows, goats, pigs, and sheep; before we planted rice, wheat, barley, and corn; before we remade the world.

“Remove domestication from the human species, and there’s probably a couple of million of us on the planet, max,” says archaeologist and geneticist Greger Larson. “Instead, what do we have? Seven billion people, climate change, travel, innovation and everything. Domestication has influenced the entire earth. And dogs were the first.” For most of human history, “we’re not dissimilar to any other wild primate. We’re manipulating our environments, but not on a scale bigger than, say, a herd of African elephants. And then, we go into partnership with this group of wolves. They altered our relationship with the natural world.”

Larson wants to pin down their origins. He wants to know when, where, and how they were domesticated from wolves. But after decades of dogged effort, he and his fellow scientists are still arguing about the answers. They agree that all dogs, from low-slung corgis to towering mastiffs, are the tame descendants of wild ancestral wolves. But everything else is up for grabs.

Some say wolves were domesticated around 10,000 years ago, while others say 30,000. Some claim it happened in Europe, others in the Middle East, or East Asia. Some think early human hunter-gatherers actively tamed and bred wolves. Others say wolves domesticated themselves, by scavenging the carcasses left by human hunters, or loitering around campfires, growing tamer with each generation until they became permanent companions.

Dogs were domesticated so long ago, and have cross-bred so often with wolves and each other, that their genes are like “a completely homogenous bowl of soup,” Larson tells me, in his office at the University of Oxford. “Somebody goes: what ingredients were added, in what proportion and in what order, to make that soup?” He shrugs his shoulders. “The patterns we see could have been created by 17 different narrative scenarios, and we have no way of discriminating between them.”

The only way of doing so is to look into the past. Larson, who is fast-talking, eminently likable, and grounded in both archaeology and genetics, has been gathering fossils and collaborators in an attempt to yank the DNA out of as many dog and wolf fossils as he can. Those sequences will show exactly how the ancient canines relate to each other and to modern pooches. They’re the field’s best hope for getting firm answers to questions that have hounded them for decades.

And already, they have yielded a surprising discovery that could radically reframe the debate around dog domestication, so that the big question is no longer when it happened, or where, but how many times.

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10 comments on “A New Origin Story for Dogs

  • 1
    Cairsley says:

    We humans love our dogs, and it will be good to know the details of their origin and history — so much a part of our own history. So I am looking forward to researchers “putting numbers on the difference between dogs and wolves” and elucidating where and when and how and how many times dogs evolved from wolves.

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  • Fascinating subject. I never bothered to research it, however, and was therefore unaware that the subject of the domestication of dogs is still shrouded in mystery.
    I would very much like to hear – would actually prefer to hear– how cats became domesticated. Where the hell did they come from? Beloved in Ancient Egypt. (That’s about all I know.)

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  • Cairsley #1
    Jun 5, 2016 at 12:01 am

    So I am looking forward to researchers “putting numbers on the difference between dogs and wolves” and elucidating where and when and how and how many times dogs evolved from wolves.

    I don’t think numbers make any sense!.

    The larger breeds of dogs are still being crossed with wolves today.


    A wolfdog (also called a wolf–dog hybrid or wolf hybrid) is a canid hybrid resulting from the hybridization of a domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) to one of four other Canis sub-species, the gray (Canis lupus), eastern timber (Canis lycaon), red (Canis rufus), and Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis).

    Wolves can also cross-breed with other Canids such as Coyotes, so genetic mixing is on-going.

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  • Stafford

    short term evolution.

    It may be more interesting than that. Wolves were/are hugely well equipped for a social mutuality anyway. They are mammalian, nurturing mothers, oxytocin passivated by grooming via fur coupling to c-tactile afferent nerves, imprecise enough to bond with as-if-kin, and good enough brains to develop hunting strategies with your buddies. More than that they had a gene set hugely wide in its ability to exploit adaptions via epigenetics. We know of no other species so spectacularly diverse in its varieties over such a short period.

    Epigenetic adaptions altering a given expression of the same gene set allow the try out of all manner of variants, which if successful can be locked in more gradually later with genuine genetic change to reset the centre of the expression range.

    This is how the Russian Silver Fox experiments can turn canids into both super-cute almost sickenly affectionate animals or “psychopathic” killers in only six or seven generations.


    This video doesn’t discuss epigenetics and adaption-first mechanisms of evolution (perhaps because it is too new a concept in how characteristics can change so rapidly), but it does explain how selecting for tameness (perhaps by feeding the grateful!) we also select for appearance.

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  • 9
    Cairsley says:

    To Alan4discussion ##4, 5, 6.

    I don’t think numbers make any sense!. …

    Hi Alan. I share your sense of the confusing data and your interest in the question. This is pretty much why I am curious to see whether these researchers will come up with anything much clearer than at present about the speciation of dogs from wolves.

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