While dogs today are commonly referred to as “man’s best friend,” the reality is that dogs’ ancestors, wolves, were actually the ones to befriend humans. In ancient times, hunter-gatherers would pass nights by the fire, flinging food scraps over their shoulders and preparing for their next hunt. Wolves, however, would be lurking in the bushes surrounding the hunter-gatherer’s camps, waiting to snag an easy meal. This process ultimately resulted in wolves becoming more acclimated to humans, which led to some wolves feeling comfortable enough to approach the hunter-gatherers. After many wolf generations, wolves began living and working with the hunter-gatherers. However, that is not all that happened. The hunter-gatherer wolves developed “splotchy coats, floppy ears, and wagging tails,” which made them appear less intimidating than their wild counterparts (Hare). This physical and psychological evolution from the wild wolf to the cute dog occurred somewhere between 15,000-14,000 years ago, according to canine teeth remains found in the Middle East, and ever since that time dogs and humans have thrived by helping each other (Zeder 172). Hunter-gatherers and dogs worked so well together because dogs were engineered to understand humans in a way that no other species can, which allowed them to perform their many functions within hunter-gatherer societies perfectly.
Even though most ancient wolves were aggressive towards humans and ended up being killed as a result of their hostility, those that domesticated themselves were actually quite tame in nature. This is because wolves and humans actually share a very similar social structure in that both species have leaders and subordinates who each have their own rank within the society (Professor Everbach). The wolves that approached humans were not the dominant males in the social hierarchy, but rather they were the ones at the bottom of the wolf pack (Zeder 172). These were the undersized runts who did not get to eat as much meat as the other wolves or mate with other members of their pack. However, because they did not have to defend territory and were essentially social outcasts, they were innately calmer than the alpha males. Since their chance of survival was already slimmer than most wolves, particularly during a famine when the dominant males and females would eat first, it makes sense that these feeble wolves decided to pair up with humans. It was beneficial for them to work with hunter-gatherers because their odds of getting a good meal were greater if they worked together. Humans and dogs had what is known as a symbiotic relationship, which means that by working together the two species each reaped rewards that they would not have had otherwise (Wade). In fact, as the centuries passed and hunter-gatherers bred dogs for specific traits, the relationship between the two improved.
The dogs raised by hunter-gatherers had many roles to play within their societies. Although dogs could be trained for many purposes, they were primarily used by hunters to track prey and then to assist with making the kill. However, dogs were also used to guard the hunter-gatherer’s camps, patrol the nearby land, search for sources of water, and as warmth during cold nights. In times of famine, dogs could even be used as an emergency food source for the hunter-gatherer tribes. Dr. Ray Coppinger is a professor at Hampshire College who specializes in dog behavior, and he thinks that, “From the half-tamed, camp following wolves…people may then have adopted some cubs into the household” (Wade). This statement indicates that another function of dogs was as pets, just like today. While dogs thousands of years ago were typically bred for specific purposes and characteristics, it appears that some hunter-gatherers enjoyed having a personal companion to dote on. Another dog behavior expert, Dr. James Serpell from the University of Pennsylvania, also agrees with this idea, saying “hunter-gatherer peoples often bring back baby wild animals and keep them as pets” (Wade). Most likely what happened is that once the wolves spent a few generations with the tribes and began changing physically to be cuter, the hunter-gatherers then began bringing pups into their homes and raising them from birth. This practice led to an important discovery that made it possible for hunter-gatherers to use dogs in all the ways described earlier. People figured out that dogs could be trained to perform specific tasks.
The reason that dogs could easily be trained by hunter-gatherers is because they possess the ability to understand human gestures better than any other species (Wade). In fact, in a recent case study done by Hungarian scientists, it was proven that dogs can genuinely understand what humans are saying based on the familiarity of the word and the intonation of the speaker’s voice (Brulliard). For the experiment, 13 dogs were trained to sit in an MRI scanner so that their brain activity could be monitored. Once inside of the MRI machine, each of the dogs’ brain activity was monitored while they listened to words their owners said to praise them and everyday words that should not have meant anything to them. The experiment produced some unexpected results. All of the dogs processed the words that they were familiar with in the left hemisphere of their brain, which is the same as humans. Not only that, the dogs processed the intonation of the words in the right hemisphere of their brain. Again, this is exactly the same as what the human brain does. According to Attila Andics, the lead researcher on the team, these results mean that “dogs not only tell apart what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two, for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant” (Brulliard). While this might not seem like a big deal today, imagine the implications of this experiment in a hunter-gatherer society. Since dogs can understand the meaning of words that they become familiar with, this would have made it easy for hunter-gatherers to train dogs for a specific task. All the hunter-gatherers would have had to do was teach the dog words vital to its job and the dog’s brains would then be able to recognize it for the rest of its life. The abilities of dogs to be trained easily, specialize in many types of tasks, and understand the human language are what made them an integral part of the success of hunter-gatherers.
However, there is another important characteristic of dogs that helped them to connect with their masters on an emotional level. Dogs and humans both have cells called mirror neurons in their brains. Susan Perry, a neurologist, defines mirror neurons as “a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement” (Perry). In other words, mirror neurons are triggered when, for example, an individual observes someone else yawning and then proceeds to yawn themselves. This may not seem very important at first glance, but it actually has a significant impact on both individuals involved. Scientists today believe that mirror neurons are what allow people to connect emotionally with others because they let the individual experience the same emotions as whoever they are interacting with (Perry). If this is the case, and since dogs have mirror neurons too, it is very possible that mirror neurons are partly responsible for allowing dogs to develop the ability to understand humans more than any other species. The hunter-gatherers were often in difficult situations in terms of lack of food, overpopulation, and environmental conditions, so if the dogs with these groups were firing mirror neurons the entire time, they would have experienced the same miserable emotions as their owners. Assuming that mirror neurons were active nearly nonstop while hunter-gatherers and dogs lived and worked together, it would explain why our two species understand each other so well. Humans and dogs have literally been sharing emotions since their first interactions 15,000 years ago.
By connecting on such a deep personal and intimate level, hunter-gatherers and dogs were able to work together to complete tasks in unprecedented ways. The reason that dogs were efficient hunters and trackers when paired with humans was because not only were they able to understand their master’s emotions, they were able to comprehend the meaning of their words as well. These traits could also be applied to other functions for dogs within the hunter-gatherer societies such as guarding and patrolling. Even though dogs played such a vital role in the lives of hunter-gatherers, it is most likely that they did not realize how lucky they were. Hunter-gatherers only had dogs because a couple of weak wolves were tired of not getting enough food and discovered that humans were throwing their leftovers away, so they decided to follow them around. It is funny to think that our ancestors nearly missed out on creating man’s best friend, yet now it is almost impossible to walk around a park without seeing a dog. Since so many families own dogs as pets today, it is obvious that the bonds our hunter-gatherer ancestors formed with them have created a permanent friendship between the two species.
Wade, Nicholas, “From Wolf to Dog, Yes, but When?” New York Times, 22 November 2002
Brulliard, Karen, “Your Dog Really Does Know What You’re Saying, And A Brain Scan Shows How” The Washington Post, 31 August 2016
Perry, Susan, “Mirror Neurons” Brain Facts, 16 November 2008
Professor Everbach, 6 September 2016