From Wolf to Dog: A Truly Remarkable Evolutionary Odyssey

An adult gray wolf looks directly at the camera. Other photo: A French bulldog on a leash looks directly into the camera.

It has been well established through DNA testing that all modern domesticated dogs are descended from gray wolves (Canis lupus).

 But how and when did the evolutionary process start?

Perhaps our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors tamed wolves? It can’t be ruled out that over the eons this might have happened here and there. But such attempts probably didn’t end well for people (although the wolves likely appreciated their effort!). Or, maybe one of our curious ancestors came upon a fluffy wolf cub and “made” it a dog, sort of how Ayla trained Wolf in Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children’s” series of novels.

Although compelling, neither of those theories are correct.


Table scraps

Scientists are pretty sure they know what kickstarted wolf-to-dog evolution: table scraps, so to speak. Just as your dog probably begs for table scraps—or tries really hard not to beg—scientists believe wolves began eating leftovers from human kills, or, perhaps, the garbage from our earliest settlements.  

There is huge disagreement, however, on when and where this began. One theory posits that wolves evolved into dogs during the Neolithic Period (11,700 years ago). This was a time when human populations settled down and began practicing agriculture. 

According to this theory, wolves hung out near human settlements to eat garbage scraps. The wolves that displayed less fear of—and more docility toward—humans were the ones who took advantage of the easy pickings. Their new diet changed their appearance and biology. No longer did these wolves need larger muzzles and bigger teeth to take down and tear apart prey.

They also evolved digestive adaptations so they could consume leftover vegetables and cereal plants. According to Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, who led research on this theory, “Dogs domesticated themselves by seeking out humans to eat from their scrap-heaps.”

Another theory suggests that wolves began adapting to human society during the Paleolithic Period (from the beginning of human existence until about 11,700 years ago). This means wolves began the process of evolution to dogs when humans were hunter-gatherers.

Proponents of this theory posit that wolves began trailing bands of hunter-gatherers to eat scraps. Docile wolves that showed less fear of people may have been given extra food, thus giving them better survival rates and more opportunity to pass down their docile genes.

PBS program backs this theory up. “DNA analysis published in 1997 suggests a date of about 130,000 years ago for the transformation of wolves to dogs. This means that wolves began to adapt to human society long before humans settled down and began practicing agriculture.”


So, when did they become domesticated?

It’s still unknown exactly when, where or even how many times wolves evolved into fully domesticated dogs. One study suggests dogs were domesticated twice. A Nature Communications paper narrowed dog domestication to 20,000-40,000 years ago in what is modern-day Germany. There are also studies suggesting dogs evolved in Southeast Asia and China.

Was it our sedentary or hunter-gatherer ancestors who were responsible for the evolution of wolves to dogs? The science is still pending. The only thing we can be sure of is this: Were it not for human beings, there would be no dogs.