Dog domestication was a process that began long ago.
When I say “long ago,” I don’t mean four hundred years ago, when the first English settlers came to this continent, first to search for gold and then to grow wealthy planting tobacco. I don’t mean a thousand years ago, when the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings ruled England.
I don’t even mean 10,000 years ago, when the first civilizations were being carved out of the alluvial plains along the Tigris and the Euphrates.
I am talking of a time before there were cities, before there were wheat fields, before there were even houses as we recognize them, and certainly long before we began to write records of our existence.
I am talking of a time so ancient in our past that we almost cannot imagine its antiquity.
We don’t know the exact date, but it most likely happened between 40,000 and 100,000 years ago.
It was during this time that some wolves developed a culture in which they festooned themselves to hunter-gatherer bands.
It is often suggested that this relationship was between a scavenging wolf that fed off the kills of the much more successful human hunters.
It could have been a hunting partnership. Schleidt and Shalter contend that the wolf was the first pastoralist. It was the first animal to fully understand the full herd behavior of its prey species. The big cats, including the lion, never fully developed this understanding and relied instead upon stalking and ambush to kill large prey. In this hypothesis, man utilized the wolf’s pastoralist behavior to become a more efficient predator. And the two species were better able to hunt large prey and spread across the world.
(The weakness of this piece is that Schleidt and Shalter think Neanderthal were involved in the domestication. I am not so convinced.)
However, in either hypothesis, dogs are derived from wolves that were connected to hunter-gatherer clans.
It was a kind of culture. Culture is behavior that is transmitted through social learning. It does not take much imagination to realize that dogs and wolves are capable of some form of culture. Wild wolves have their own “cultures.” There are wolves in western Canada and Alaska that rely heavily upon the salmon runs for their sustenance. Arabian wolves often don’t form packs and live almost exclusively on small prey. During the last ice age, there were huge wolves in Alaska that specialized in hunting megafauna.
These wolves all have developed cultures that have allowed them to survive in their respective environments. In this way, they are similar to people, but when people develop a new culture to live in a new environment, we develop technology. Wolves change shape. It is widely known that members of the dog family have this ability to quickly develop a different body after just a few generations of selective pressures. This elasticity in shape is why domestic dogs so rapidly evolved into so many different breeds.
In the wild, such elasticity meant that wolves could easily adapt to new niches. For wolves, this ability is as useful as our ability to fashion new technology.
Camp wolves did not automatically change shape to fit people– at least not in ways that are discernible in fossil record. These camp wolves probably hunted the same prey as their non-camp counterparts, and because they were doing similar things, they didn’t need to shape shift.
However, they eventually did. The oldest “dog skull” dates to the Aurignacian. This animal was probably not a “dog.” It was most likely a camp wolf that had started to develop dog-like conformation.
The people who were living in intimate terms with these camp wolves were probably better able to hunt large prey. There are skulls of normal looking wolves that have been found in areas where human hunters killed large numbers of mammoths. They tended to use the same areas for their mammoth hunts, because the land had some feature, such steep cliffs or boggy terrain, that incapacitated the mammoths, making them easier to kill. Some of these wolf skulls have very extreme amounts of trauma, almost as if a flailing mammoth bashed its head in.
Although there could be plenty of reasons why wolves with these sorts of injuries could be found at mammoth killing sites, it doesn’t take a great imagination to think that these wolves were helping their human counterparts pursue this large and dangerous prey. Maybe the wolves gripped the mammoth as it went down, only to be mortally wounded by the woolly pachyderm’s death throes.
Except for those big Alaskan wolves mentioned earlier, it is unlikely that wolves ever tried to hunt things as large as mammoths. However, if they were camp wolves that were part of this human and canine hunting culture, it would make sense that they would involve themselves in a mammoth hunt. It would be a fun for them, in the same way hog hunting is fun for pit bulls and other catch dogs. It’s just the prey is bigger and a quite a bit more dangerous than a feral boar. I would also allow the wolves a chance to experience a total smorgasbord of mammoth bone, meat, and offal that they would have never been able to access on their own.
We have a very poor understanding of what life would have been like for these camp wolves. At some point around 15,000 to 17,000 years ago, the dog phenotype took over among the camp wolves. It is likely that selective breeding began to produce animals of this type.
To understand what this culture may have been like, we must look to historical accounts of non-Western societies that still maintained a hunter-gatherer existence prior to European contact.
Some of the best accounts I can find are of Native Americans.
The Beothuk people of Newfoundland relied heavily upon caribou for their survival. Prior to European contact, the only large ungulates on the island were caribou, which the Beothuk hunted by using large fences and corrals to drive them into a killing area. They owned no dogs, but at least one historical account shows that they had an intimate relationship with the wolves of Newfoundland, which like the Beothuk, are now extinct. They marked the ears of their “camp wolves,” which roamed wild and free in the wilderness. It is not mentioned if the wolves helped in the hunt, but it is likely that their prowess as caribou hunters did not go unnoticed.
Prince Maximilian von Wied and the fur-trader Alexander Henry saw camp wolves that coexisted perfectly with Plains Indians and their dogs. In this scenario, there were camp wolves that lived on their own, shifting in and out of camps at their leisure, and domestic dogs that were used as beasts of burden and camp guards. There is no evidence that the Indians ever used these wolves to hunt bison, but they had a definite relationship with them. The wolves likely interbred with their dogs and provided some sort of genetic boost to their working animals.
But those Native American accounts are nothing compared to some accounts of the dingo living in close proximity to Indigenous Australian communities.
Carl Lumholtz, the Norwegian ethnographer, wrote of Indigenous Australians taking dingo puppies from tree trunks and other dens and then raising the pups as if they were their own children. They would show great affection towards these dingo puppies, which then grew into excellent hunting dogs that they used to track game. During the mating season, the dingoes would wander off. Some would find mates in the bush and would never return, but others would return to the people who had shown them such love and attention.
It is possible that this relationship is closest thing to an historical account of what life for a camp wolf was like. It is likely that the original hunter-gatherers stole wolf pups from dens and that these wolves became the basis of the camp wolf culture. Perhaps some of these wolves returned to their wild ways during the mating season and never returned.
Those who stayed wound up producing the wolves that became dogs.
These Australian natives were like these ancient people who lived with wolves. They were hunter-gatherers, who lived entirely off of what they could catch, kill, and gather.
In some well-known dog books, such as Raymond Coppinger’s, it is said that people living as hunter-gatherers would never be able to domesticate anything. Other accounts of various hunter-gather people show that they are noted pet keepers. South American Indians keep all sorts of different pets– tapirs, parrots, macaws, giant otters, ocelots, margays, and various South American wild dogs. They do not become domesticated, but if any of these animals had some of the natural proclivities towards bonding with people that are apparent in some members of Canis lupus, they probably would have started down the road of domestication. The domesticated culpeo definitely was starting down that path. The people of Tierra del Fuego were hunter-gatherers, yet they were able to have a culpeo that very nearly became a kind of indigenous South American domestic dog.
So it is possible that the camp wolf society was made up of wolves that were captured as pups and then strongly imprinted upon people.
In addition to the capture-cub hypothesis, it is also possible that wolves joined hunter-gatherer clans as adults. Wolves usually disperse from their natal packs at around three years of age. When they leave, they go off in search of new territory– and a mate. It is possible that there were some young wolves that dispersed and found themselves living in the hinterlands between different packs. Because these wolves were not persecuted and were behaviorally less nervous animals, they may have sought out people for companionship and the chance to have a pack of their own.
We have seen something similar in the story of Romeo, a black wolf that lived near Juneau, who found himself without a pack. He spent most of his life trying to hook up with people and their dogs, just so he could have some companionship.
It is probably likely that both of these scenarios went on for millennia. Different wolves joined human camps for different reasons, but soon a whole population and culture of these animals developed. And it is from these animals that the domestic dog population eventually evolved.
The camp wolf phase of dog domestication is often brushed off. We do not have a very good archeological record of these animals, simply because the majority of camp wolves looked too much like non-camp wolves. We cannot tell whether wolves were truly part of human societies, even if their remains are found in the same caves. Because this phase happened so long ago, there are no written records of these animals, although Tacitus may have written about the camp wolves of the Germanic tribes. (Or he could have been writing about the proto-German, Belgian, or Dutch shepherd or the maybe the spitzes, when he wrote of the “wolf-dogs of the Rhine.”)
Yet this phase is the longest in the relationship between Canis lupus and Homo sapiens. Man and wolf forged an alliance a very long time ago. Both species clearly benefited from the alliance. Man was better able to hunt large prey and protect himself from large predators and human enemies. And these wolves had access to large sources of prey.
The dog was able to spread into place the wolf on its own never dared to go. It entered Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Polynesia, Australia, New Guinea, and the Americas south of the Valley of Mexico.
The dog now exists in far greater numbers than any wild canid. Its elastic shape that is easily influenced by selective pressures has let it develop into such bizarrely different forms as the two-pound Chihuahua to the 200-pound mastiff.
Dogs in the West and Japan– and now China–have become integral parts of human families. Dogs are benefiting so much from advances in technology and wealth that they no longer live like the wolves that they are.
Man became a better hunter because of the relationship he forged with the wolf. Later, he would rely upon the descendants of those camp wolves to control his flocks and herds. From those flocks and herds would come a ready supply of meat, hides, wool, and milk. And a constant supply of those things– along with steady stores of grain– meant that human could focus upon building our civilization. Without dogs, we never would have tamed sheep or goats. They simply live in areas in which people cannot catch them or control them properly, but a sure-footed dog certainly can manage them. Without sheep or goats, it is unlikely that we would have tried to domesticate the horse, the ass, or the aurochsen.
Of course, none of those things were evident to the hunter-gatherers who allowed their relationship with some wolves to make them better adapted to hunting game. All they knew is that they were not the best caribou hunters in the world, and as a species that evolved in the tropics, they knew they were not exactly prepared to make it in the temperate parts of Eurasia.
The wolves likely showed them way.
And we may owe our success as species to these camp wolves, which eventually became our dogs.
Maybe this is why we love our dogs so much.