Is the wolf the ancestor of the dog?


The oldest dog skeletons ever found date from approximately 10,000 years ago, 30,000 years after Cro-Magnon man (Homo sapiens sapiens). They have always been found near human bones, which is why they were given the name Canis familiaris. It would appear reasonable to assume that domesticated dogs are descended from early wild canids. Other possible ancestors include the grey wolf (Canis lupus) the jackal (Canis aureus) and the coyote (Canis latrans).

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Genetic evidence

The oldest dog remains were actually unearthed in China, where the remains of jackals and coyotes have never been found. China was the site of the first known working relationships between humans and a small variety of wolf (Canis lupus variabilis) around 150,000 years ago. The coexistence of these two species at an early stage of their evolution appears to corroborate the theory that the wolf is the ancestor of the domesticated dog.


It is a very widely held belief that the dog is directly descended from the wolf. Recent advances in genetics, especially the sequencing of the canine genome, show that this is not as simple as it may appear. While wolf and dog share all but around 0.2% of their genetic material (compared with a 1% difference between chimpanzee and human), recent discoveries show that other species of wild canids, even minority groups like dingoes and coyotes, are part of the genealogy of the dog.


A widely held premise is that dogs descended directly from wolves.


This hypothesis has been strengthened by several recent discoveries: some Nordic breeds have been shown to be directly descended from the wolf; studies show that the dog and the wolf share 99.8% of their mitochondrial DNA, versus only 96% between the dog and the coyote; more than forty-five sub-species of the wolf have been classified, which could help explain the diversity between dog breeds; wolf and dog body and vocal language is mutually understandable.

Similarities between dog and wolf: a difficult analysis

The similarities between dogs and wolves make it difficult for paleozoologists to accurately determine whether remains are wolf or dog if they are incomplete or the archaeological context suggests cohabitation is unlikely. Primitive dogs differ from their ancestors only on a few, highly unreliable, points of detail, including the length of the nose, the angle of the stop, and the distance between the carnassials and the upper tubercles.


Furthermore, there were many fewer canid predators than there was prey, which reduces the likelihood of their fossils being found. These difficulties, together with the possibility of dog-wolf hybridisation, explain why there are still many missing links in the origins of the dog, especially transitional forms between Canis lupus variabilis and Canis familiaris, which could settle the debate once and for all.

It is worth noting that the diffusionist theory, which argues that human migration caused primitive dogs to adapt, does not exclude the evolutionist theory, which maintains that dog varieties originated in different wolf domestication centres.

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Battle of the theories


Numerous theories variously proposing wolf, jackal and coyote as the dog’s ancestor – based on skeletal and dental similarities – have long been in competition. Yet others hypothesise that breeds as different as the Chow Chow and the Greyhound are descended from different species of the Canis genus.

In 1968, Fiennes put forward the theory that the four main groups of modern-day dogs are descended from four distinct sub-species of wolf – European, Chinese, Indian and North American.
Others hypothesise that crosses between these species led to the development of dogs, arguing that the wolf can mate with the coyote or the jackal and the jackal with the coyote to produce fertile hybrids, each with thirty-nine pairs of chromosomes.
This hybridisation theory now appears to have been disproven, due to the ecological barriers we now know separated these species at the time domesticated dogs first appeared, which would have ruled out the possibility of mating between coyotes and jackals in particular.
Wolves were found everywhere, but differences in size and behaviour between them and the two other species makes interspecies mating highly improbable, which would tend to disprove the hypothesis that hybridisation between the jackal (Canis aureus) and the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) produced the modern-day dog.

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