Ancient wolf DNA, dating back to the Ice Age, reveals that dogs may have been first domesticated in modern-day Asia.

After extensive research, we now know that the gray wolf is the ancestor of domestic dogs. In addition, it is known that this domestication took place during the Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago. What we don’t know, though, is where dogs were first domesticated. Also, did this happen in one place, or in several? Researchers are now in a new study digging into the past in a frantic effort to answer this pressing question.


To better understand where the first dogs evolved from wolves, researchers turned to ancient wolf genomes. The team analyzed 72 wolf genomes, found in Europe, Siberia and North America, dating from different periods over the past 100,000 years. The remains include the perfectly preserved head of a Siberian wolf that lived 32,000 years ago.

A perfectly preserved 32,000-year-old wolf skull, found in Yakutia (an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation). Among other things, the genome of this wolf was sequenced as part of the study. Image: Love Dalén

Then several labs teamed up to generate DNA sequence data from the wolves. “Thanks to this study, we have significantly increased the number of ancient wolf genomes that have been sequenced,” said researcher Anders Bergström. “This has allowed us to create a detailed picture of the wolf’s timeline.” It means the researchers were able to closely monitor the emergence of mutations and natural selection, which also reveals important information about when the dog emerged.


The study brings us a significant step closer to answering the question of where dogs were domesticated. Because by analyzing the genomes, the researchers found that both early and modern dogs are genetically more similar to wolves from Asia than from Europe. This means that the first domestication of dogs may have occurred somewhere in modern-day Asia.

Two separate wolf populations

In addition, the researchers found evidence that dogs descended from at least two separate wolf populations. In fact, early dogs from Northeastern Europe, Siberia and America seem to have a single, shared origin that can be traced back to an Eastern Eurasian species of wolf. But early dogs from the Middle East, Africa and southern Europe appear to have another ancestor in addition to the eastern ancestor, akin to modern-day southwestern Eurasian wolves.


One explanation for this dual ancestry is that wolves were domesticated more than once. And possibly different populations subsequently mixed with each other. Another plausible possibility is that dogs were domesticated once, but these early dogs then mixed with wild wolves again. At this point, it remains a mystery which of these two scenarios took place.

So where did the dog first see the light of day? While the study lifts the veil—and suggests that dogs likely originated in modern-day Asia—we’re not there yet. The team is therefore continuing the “hunt” of ancient wolves, which could reveal even more precisely where the domestication of our four-legged friends took place. The researchers are now focusing on wolf genomes found in sites not included in this study, including wolf DNA from more southern regions. And we may then gain more insight into where the formation of the close bond between humans and dogs started.