Crop tolerance and avoidance are critical adaptation mechanisms to cope with drought stress but they contribute differently to grain yield formation. Little is known about the different roles of these two mechanisms in long-term crop breeding. A meta-analysis was conducted to determine the different effects of drought tolerance and avoidance mechanisms on the drought adaptation of wheat crops. The meta-analysis summarized the results of 283 published papers in international journals, and illustrated that primitive wheat genotypes, including wild, cultivated diploids, tetraploids and old hexaploids, preferentially showed a drought avoidance strategy, as evidenced by large root biomass, small leaf area, and reduced stomatal conductance under water deficits. Modern hexaploid genotypes showed stronger drought tolerance advantages, such as high leaf water potential and osmotic adjustment, with a small root system. The meta-analysis indicated that the breeding process of dryland wheat has been continuously enhancing drought tolerance while weakening drought avoidance. Under severe water deficits, old hexaploid wheat genotypes with drought avoidance characteristics showed lower reduction of aboveground biomass and yield than modern genotypes with stronger drought tolerance features, while under mild and moderate water deficits genotypes with stronger drought tolerance features had higher yields and aboveground biomass. The meta-analysis provide information for making decisions on the direction of modern crop breeding and the implementing of managing practices to cope with drought stress, which frequency and severity is increasing with the advent of climate change.