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Did Humans Domesticate Dogs? or Wolves?

Updated on February 27, 2014

A skull found in the Altai Mountains of Siberia confirmed that dogs had been domesticated at least 33,000 years ago. Molecular evidence has shown that dogs descended from wolves that began domestication, by living with or being influenced by humans, somewhere beyond 130,000 years ago. Many scientists now suspect that gray wolves could have begun living alongside ancient man before man had even completed the evolution into Homo sapiens. While we don’t know with any certainty when man and gray wolves began to travel, hunt and gather as a group, we do know with some certainty that gray wolves had begun their domestication and thus evolution into canines about or before the time that mitochondrial Eve (the common ancestor from whom all humans today evolved) lived on earth. Roughly between 130,000 and 150,000 years ago.

Some rights reserved by Dobak
Some rights reserved by Dobak | Source

Dogs may have had an influence on human evolution.

This could be significant from a genetic perspective in that our own evolution could have been influenced by the presence of domesticated dogs/wolves (canids). It is certainly something to think about the next time your dog lies down with you by the fire. That and the fact that dogs and humans may have been lying by the fire together for millions of years, each providing life sustaining tasks for the other. Knowing that man had a distinct influence on the evolution of dogs, begs the question; what if humans evolved differently under the influence of dogs/wolves that would have in their absence? This is in fact what many researchers are beginning to suspect in light of the most recent evidence.

It is suspected that tamed wolves began to travel with hunter-gatherers very early on, long before the fossil record or the evolutionary genetic changes that would lead to DNA evidence of domestication. As mentioned above, we don’t know how early this process began but the DNA evidence is most puzzling when we consider that the variability in molecular distance between dogs and wolves seems much greater than the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 years originally assigned to domestication. Which would lead us to suspect further that the grey wolf may have become domesticated by man far earlier than currently suspected.

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You may be asking yourself, what about the Neanderthals?

A 2012 article in the Atlantic outlined evidence that Neanderthals probably did not keep dogs or attempt to domesticate wolves. However, it is interesting that humans were intensely obsessed with their relationship with dogs during the period of their migration into Eurasia where Neanderthals had thrived for more than 250,000 years. In fact, humans literally worshiped dogs, taking part in ritualistic worship, wearing jewelry made from dog’s teeth and burying them with great respect. We know they did not eat them from previous evidence and early humans did not wear jewelry made from animals they consumed. This means that the bond between humans and dogs was considerably stronger than originally thought and humans acknowledged an enormous dependence on their best friends.

Roughly 35,000 – 45,000 years ago humans migrated into Europe and although it is still undetermined whether they actually fought and killed Neanderthals, we do know that the Neanderthal did not survive humans populating their territory. After 250,000 years, they died out in less than 10,000 years after humans arrived. A recent theory suggests that the reason may have been that the human relationship and regard for dogs gave them a much larger survival advantage.

some rights reserved by Dan Newcomb Photography
some rights reserved by Dan Newcomb Photography | Source

Popular theories of dog/wolf domestication

There are several interesting theories to exactly how gray wolf domestication began. In reality, it was likely a permutation of each of these theories. The evolution of tamed Wolves that evolved further into domesticated wolves which continued to progress and evolve further along with humans, rather than alongside humans. Here are several theories:

One theory is that early man may have taken or adopted wolf pups at an early age, rearing them within the community for their protection and hunting skills. Scientists believe that humans could have adopted orphaned wolf cubs and nursed them alongside human babies. Once these orphaned and adopted wolves began breeding among themselves, a new generation of tame “wolf-like” domesticated animals would result, which over time would become more “dog-like”. The theory is supported by one study that has shown that wolves can be successfully socialized. Although other researchers attempts to socialize wolves after the pups reach 21 days are very time-consuming and unpractical when considering the nomad-like life of early human hunter-gatherers.

There is little doubt that wolves would have been attracted to human campsites and settlements as they scavenged and hunted near them. They would have been attracted to human’s fresh kills from hunting and fishing, as well as refuse left at campsites. Dr. Raymond Coppinger of Hampshire College argues that “those wolves that were more successful at interacting with humans would pass these traits on to their offspring, eventually creating wolves that were more successful at interacting with humans who would pass these traits on to their offspring, eventually creating wolves with a greater propensity to be domesticated. The most social and least fearful wolves were the ones who were kept around the human living areas, helping to breed those traits that are still recognized in dogs today.”

Early man was more likely to domesticate wolves with preferable characteristics and behavior, such as being attentive and barking when something approached the camp at night. It might be likely that prior to early domestication wolves separated into two distinct populations, the human curious scavengers and the more aggressive hunter packs that were perceived as more of a threat to early humans. It’s possible that the human curious scavengers proved to be an asset as they slowly became more and more social, possibly as a group. It may have even been possible that the pack traveled, not with but alongside the human group, eventually protecting the group, hunting with them and ultimately becoming companions. The following steps leading to complete domestication and thus evolution have not been confirmed, but selectivity must have been an aspect of the process to sustain what we know eventually happened.

Do baboons kidnap and raise feral dogs as pets?

Viral Video of Baboon’s raising dogs as pets. True or False?

At this point I should mention a viral video on YouTube (clip from the British series “Animals like Us”) that depicts the Baboons of Ta’if, in Saudi Arabia kidnapping and raising dogs as pets. To be honest, despite the theory I mention above that dogs may have been living alongside early man before man was in fact, man, I find the YouTube video suspicious. It appears to me that the dogs in the video are simply living among the baboons, and baboons alongside the dogs, rather than the baboons kidnapping and raising these dogs as suggested in the film. However, either scenario could support the idea that early man and dogs may have begun living together, with man eventually domesticating dogs long before, if not several millions of years before homo sapiens evolved. Although, dogs may be just as intelligent as baboons in many ways, so there has to be just as much in it for the dogs for them to stick around.

Dogs evolved from gray wolves. Period.

A number of dogs derived from different ancestral gray wolf populations, along with a number of random dog breeds and other lines of wild wolf populations, were all analyzed in order to identify genetic sources of the domestic dog gene pool. A limited DNA analysis of seven dog breeds and 26 gray wolf populations from different locations has shown that the genotypes of dogs and gray wolves are either identical or differ by only one or two genetic markers.

Confirming that the domestic dog is an extremely close relative of the gray wolf, exhibiting a difference of no more than 0.2% of mitochondrial DNA. In comparison, the gray wolf differs from its closest wild relative the coyote, by 4% of mitochondrial DNA sequence. Therefore any theories that domestic dogs evolved from other canids ancestors, or that other species, such as the jackal or fox were introduced during the evolution of the domestic dog (canine) is false. Dogs are gray wolves, despite their diversity in size, color and variation; they are biologically, 99.08% gray wolves. Think about that the next time your pooch wants to play.


A limited DNA analysis of seven dog breeds and 26 gray wolf populations from different locations has shown that the genotypes of dogs and wolves are either identical or differ by only one or two genetic markers.
A limited DNA analysis of seven dog breeds and 26 gray wolf populations from different locations has shown that the genotypes of dogs and wolves are either identical or differ by only one or two genetic markers. | Source

When will we know if dogs and humans have aways been together?

For many years there have been countless theories regarding how dogs or wolves became domesticated, bred and arrived at their place in the world today. As we discussed above, quite a few early scientific theories progressed into wives tales, many of which continue today. Quite like the world of theoretical physics, it seems the truth about the evolution of dogs and humans may turn out to be far more poetic than any theory or wives tale has ever dreamed up, if it turns out that dogs had some influence on human evolution and it may not be long before the theory becomes fact or wives tale. It may be possible to mark the beginning of the gray wolf’s evolution into the dog within the next 5 - 7 years. Recent studies have demonstrated that understanding the genetic mechanisms that have given rise to the attributes of domestic dogs may now be possible through genome sequencing. This means that in just a few years or less, we may know more about the evolution of dogs and their relationships, and perhaps influence on humans, than we could have ever hoped to have known in our lifetime.

© 2014 Steve Garton

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      William Harris 

      4 years ago

      What makes the author believe that dogs are domesticated? Socialised yes, domesticated no.

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