A long-standing enigma concerns the geographic and ecological origins of the intensively studied vinegar fly, Drosophila melanogaster. This globally distributed human commensal is thought to originate from sub-Saharan Africa, yet until recently, it had never been reported from undisturbed wilderness environments that could reflect its precommensal niche. Here, we document the collection of 288 D. melanogaster individuals from multiple African wilderness areas in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. The presence of D. melanogaster in these remote woodland environments is consistent with an ancestral range in southern-central Africa, as opposed to equatorial regions. After sequencing the genomes of 17 wilderness-collected flies collected from Kafue National Park in Zambia, we found reduced genetic diversity relative to town populations, elevated chromosomal inversion frequencies, and strong differences at specific genes including known insecticide targets. Combining these genomes with existing data, we probed the history of this species’ geographic expansion. Demographic estimates indicated that expansion from southern-central Africa began ∼10,000 years ago, with a Saharan crossing soon after, but expansion from the Middle East into Europe did not begin until roughly 1,400 years ago. This improved model of demographic history will provide an important resource for future evolutionary and genomic studies of this key model organism. Our findings add context to the history of D. melanogaster, while opening the door for future studies on the biological basis of adaptation to human environments.