From Beast to Best Friend

James Casey '08

One would be hard-pressed to find a wolf today that would obey commands such as “sit” or “roll over.” However, many scientists believe that thousands of years ago, our ancestors taught wolves to get along with humans. They may not have been “man’s best friend,” but they were still one of the best tools that early man had. But why did they first become tamed, how did they help the nomadic tribes, and who was ultimately responsible for their domestication? The answers to all of these questions are inter-related and start with the wolves.

It is thought that anywhere from 15,000 to 135,000 years ago “dogs” became a different population from “wolves.” How this transition occurred is widely debated. One theory is that the wolves made the first move. Slowly getting closer to the human camps and becoming increasingly friendly. The other is that humans actively persuaded these wild animals into joining their society. We may never know the truth but there seems to be strong evidence on both sides.

Humans at the time posed very little threat to the wolves. It was inefficient to hunt them because they would be hard to catch, there was relatively little meat, and a wolf can hunt back. This persuaded the early humans to let sleeping dogs lie. However, since these were two relatively dominant species living in close proximity to one another there must have been some contact.

“Few relationships are so laden with mutual benefit as that between man and dog. Much of the credit for this unusual state of affairs, it now turns out, may lie on the canine side of the equation.” One explanation of this is that the wolves may have seen the human camps and seen the scraps of food that could have been lying around. Slowly they would have become more comfortable with the humans and stayed longer in their presence. This would have created an understanding between the two species that could have developed into the symbiotic relationship that exists today.

One other mitigating factor is that the dogs that first ventured into human society were probably the outcasts of their packs. The weakest and the least dangerous who could not get any food from their own group. Since they could not hunt well they would not get to eat the spoils of the kill and would start to go hungry. Rather than starve they approached the human camps and became more daring to get the leftovers that early man did not want. Since these dogs were already exiled from their own group they would have been more adept to following the direction of the humans and being cooperative.

I feel that this is a plausible explanation to why the first dogs allowed themselves to be tamed. It was out of necessity and the mutually beneficial relationship that existed between humans and these wolf dogs. Without the active participation on the part of the wolves, there would never have been an opportunity for the dogs to become integrated into the society.

But this relationship was by no means a one-sided affair. Humans benefited greatly from the presence of canines in their camps. “Once dogs had been domesticated, they would have been of great value to hunter-gatherer societies, though it is hard to know what specific quality the domesticators sought. ‘They could have been useful as guard dogs, for hunting, as an emergency food supply, as bed warmers.’”

The first reasonable way in which humans could have benefited from having these animals around was for security. Even though early humans had much more acute senses of smell, sight, and hearing, a dog would be able to detect things that people simply could not notice. If a predator was near, the dogs may pick up on it first and alert the people. It would also have been useful to have an animal that was awake while the people of the camp were asleep. There would not be a need to post look-out because if anything snuck up on the camp in the night the dogs would let the people know by barking and making a lot of noise.

The same could be true for prey as for a predator. If the early humans saw the dogs going off to hunt, or even to scavenge an already killed animal, they would follow. This is a far cry from actually using dogs to hunt, but it could have been the start of that relationship.

Perhaps the key to the success of the dog/human relationship is the ability of dogs to be able to read the expressions of humans. This enables them to understand what we are saying better that any other animal. “…Although chimpanzees may have brain power of far greater wattage, there is one task at which dogs excel, that of picking up cues from human behavior. This interpretive skill was perhaps the ability for which they were selected [to be domesticated]. Chimpanzees will notice where a person is looking but do not take the hint that the box being looked at is the one holding the hidden food. Dogs get the picture immediately.”

There are many, many other ways in which a dog could have made a human’s life easier, but what did the humans have to do to secure this bond. Even if the wolves made the first move by coming closer to the camps, the humans still must have realized the benefit and exploited it. “From the half-tamed, camp-following wolves, people may then have adopted some cubs into the household and found that they could be trained. Hunter-gatherer peoples often bring back baby wild animals and keep them as pets until they become unmanageable.”

One argument that des not seem wholly plausible in my mind is the idea that one-day humans decided to go out and domesticate wolves. It would have been entirely too hard, dangerous and time consuming for this to happen. Evidence of this can be see through the research of Dr. Dmitry K. Belyaev, a biologist at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia and his successor, Dr. Lyudmila Trut. They studied the traits and tameability of silver foxes. “[They] reported recently that after selecting from 45,000 foxes over 40 years the institute now had 100 fully tame foxes.” Ancient people did not have nearly the information, or technology that we have today so it would have taken then considerably longer to train these animals, and with much less success. To me, this does not seem like a practical procedure.

In my mind a more acceptable view is one where the wolves make the first move and become increasingly friendly with the human population. They get closer and closer to the camp and the humans. Over time the humans see what benefits can be gained from having the wolves around and try to domesticate the cubs. This process continued, with the two species getting increasingly closer and dependent on one another, until dogs and humans were living side by side.

Dogs were probably the first animal to be domesticated and seem to have assumed considerable importance in early human societies. The bond between humans and dogs is a very symbiotic relationship. Each party gained from, and helped the other. In this way the domestication of the wolf may be one of the greatest advances of pre-civilization.

Pennisi, Elizabeth “A Shaggy Dog History” Science Magazine 10/22/02

Wade, Nicholas “From Wolf to Dog, Yes, But When” NY Times 10/22/02







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