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A brief history of dogs - David Ian Howe

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Since their emergence over 200,000 years ago, modern humans have established communities all over the planet. But they didn’t do it alone. Whatever corner of the globe you find humans in today, you’re likely to find another species as well: dogs. So how did one of our oldest rivals, the wolf, evolve into man’s best friend? David Ian Howe traces the history of humanity’s first domesticated animal.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator David Ian Howe
  • Director Felipe Grosso
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Storyboard Artist Felipe Grosso, Ricke Ito
  • Character Designer Ricke Ito
  • Animator Kelvin Lima, Vini Pereira, Larissa Menézio
  • Art Director Mateus Contini
  • Editor Mateus Contini
  • Compositor Mateus Contini
  • Sound Designer Vadeco Schettini
  • Composer Vadeco Schettini
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott, Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Francisco Diez
  • See more
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When humans began to migrate out of our African homeland and settle the Old World during the Pleistocene Epoch, we would have encountered a myriad of strange creatures. Massive mammoths, haunting hyenas, and of course, wandering wolves. But like us humans, wolves were not native to Eurasia and came from another strange and exotic land––North America.

Wolves and the other canids evolved in the New World during the Eocene epoch, but eventually crossed the Bering land bridge into the Old World during the Pleistocene along with other
endemic American animals
, such as horses (Equus ferus) and camels (Camelus sp.). Due to their biological adaptations and evolutionary success, wolves thrived in the Old World and were well-established by the time modern humans arrived.

Human hunter-gatherers at this time would have been hunting large game such as elk, reindeer, and bison. Coincidentally, this diet is exactly what wolf packs would have been eating. It was inevitable that wolves and humans would have come into frequent contact. And due to the success of human intelligence and capability, wolves would have seen increasing numbers of humans invade more of their territories. This left our lupine rivals with two options––face a population decline or adapt. This ancient conflict is what created the dog.

The roasting meats of human camps would have been irresistible to wolves looking for food. Slowly stalking the camps at night in hopes of a bite to eat, some wolves would have been brave enough to venture into camps, close to the humans. Most wolves would have fled at the sight of humans or killed for showing aggression. This is called
Flight Distance Theory
. The wolves that could stand to be around humans longer would have eventually reproduced more docile offspring and continue this behavior.

Over time, these docile wolves would have become more socially adapted around humans. As most wolves are monogamous and their packs consist of small family groups, adapting to life among humans was likely a smooth transition. In addition, our similar social queues and hierarchies allowed us to teach wolves verbal and non-verbal commands. Thus, we would have begun to see what we think of as “dogs” around this time. Early dogs, known as “proto-dogs,” would have begun to show signs of
domestication syndrome
, which gave them floppy ears, wagging tails, and different colored coats (check out this video on the
Siberian Fox Experiment
for more on that).

Archaeologists believe (what may be) the oldest known of evidence these transitional canids comes from a cave site in
Siberia
, which dates to around 33,000 years before the present. There are also significantly early transitional canid remains found in Belgium, dating to around 31,000 years before the present. Because dogs looked so similar to wolves at this time, it is difficult for archaeologists to determine their true identity, but when these remains are found among human artifacts and activity, it certainly poses questions. Nevertheless, most archaeologists will agree that dogs are clearly and genetically evident by around 14-15,000 years before the present. A recent burial of a puppy that died of canine distemper yields this exact date. Also, around this time, humans had begun migrating into the Americas, bringing their dogs with them. The oldest known remains of American dogs come from the Koster Site in Illinois, at around 10,000 years before the present.

Regardless of their earliest appearance, dogs are clearly a flourishing species that won’t be dwindling anytime soon. Modern dogs are all evolved and selectively bred to help humans accomplish certain tasks, fill certain niches, as well as provide us with companionship. With hundreds of different breeds, and at least 192 being officially recognized by the American Kennel Club, the anthropological story of dogs is truly a testament to the power of evolution and human-animal interaction.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator David Ian Howe
  • Director Felipe Grosso
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Storyboard Artist Felipe Grosso, Ricke Ito
  • Character Designer Ricke Ito
  • Animator Kelvin Lima, Vini Pereira, Larissa Menézio
  • Art Director Mateus Contini
  • Editor Mateus Contini
  • Compositor Mateus Contini
  • Sound Designer Vadeco Schettini
  • Composer Vadeco Schettini
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott, Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Francisco Diez
  • See more