Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Alpha’

I finally got around to watching Alpha, a film that depicts a fictionalized account of dog domestication. It is set 20,000 years ago in Europe, which means that it posits a European origin for the domestic dog, and because of this early date, it sets domestication in the time of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.

The events in the film are backed in at least some of the literature on dog domestication. The oldest dog subfossil remains in existence that are not hotly debated as to belonging to a dog and not a wolf are the Bonn-Oberkassel dog, which dates to around 14,000 years ago. Yes, that’s about 6,000 years later than the events in Alpha, but we do have that paper positing European origins for the domestic dog that suggests an even older domestication event on that continent.


I should note right now that I remain agnostic whether dogs originated in Europe or Central Asia. Both are likely candidates based upon the best genetic data. I am open to there being two domestication “events,” but other than that one well-publicized paper, this hypothesis has not been well-received.

So it is potentially possible for the events in Alpha to be in keeping with some of the literature on dog domestication.

The film’s protagonist is Keda, who speaks a language that is called Solutrean, which is the name archaeologists have given to an industry culture in some parts of Paleolithic Europe. Because of the similarity between spearpoints from this Solutrean culture and some aboriginal North American peoples from roughly the same time period, some experts posited that European hunter-gatherers came across the North Atlantic following marine mammals along the ice flows, suggesting a European origin for some North American native people. Of course, this hypothesis has been dumped in light molecular data that show a Siberian origin for the indigenous people of the Americas.

Keda is the son of a Solutrean chief who wants his son to be a powerful and skilled hunter of big game, especially steppe bison, which are his people’s predominant prey species. Keda, though, is a bit soft with quarry. He refuses to finish off a wild boar that has been speared, and his father takes great umbrage with his temerity when it comes to the kill. But this is Keda’s first big hunting expedition, and his father really wants to teach his son the ways of his craft.

This world is not meant for those who cannot be crafty and tough. While sitting at a campfire, a cave lion absconds with one of the men. A memorial cairn is placed where the lion took the man, and they move on in search of meat in the hoof in a way that shows they accept their mortal fates in such a hostile environment. So Keda’s softness and excessive empathy might not be well-matched for such a lifestyle.

The hunting expedition reaches its climax when tribesmen and their close allies come across a herd of steppe bison. They stalk them in close, and they use their spear throws to drive them towards a cliff. Many fall off the cliff and die, and the Solutrean tribes can have their meat and hides and bones for another year. However, as they drive the bison off the cliff, one unusually recalcitrant one charges Keda and lifts him up with its horns and throws him off the cliff. He falls to a rock outcropping, where the tribe is forced to leave him for dead. A cairn is left in his memory on the cliff face, and his father and the hunters leave him to the ages.

It is at this point that film begins to play around with artistic license. Keda awakes when a griffon-type vulture tries to scavenge his carcass, and when Keda realizes that he is just resting on a ledge, he tries to climb down the steep cliff side with his badly injured leg. At that point, it starts to rain and the ravine below the cliff fills with water. He then jumps into the torrent below. Miraculously, he survives the fall and the rushing water, which I found a bit implausible. He then put his wounded leg back in order and begins looking around for a bit of food and shelter.

While he limps around, a pack of wolves shows up, but he manages to fight them off with the spearheads he’s carrying on his clothing and escape in a tree. He badly injures one of the wolves, which lies wounded beneath the tree.

I should note here that I am quite skeptical that Pleistocene wolves were particularly dangerous to people. As I’ve noted before, the wolves of Ellesmere and Baffin Island, which have never been intensely persecuted, are unusually curious and socially open with people. It seems to me that Eurasian wolves living 20,000 years ago would have had a similar curiosity about people, and thus, they would have been relatively easy for people to habituate them to our presence. I don’t think that an animal that was a much a threat to people as cave lions would have been trusted at all, and there would have been little of the empathy between people and wolves that could have led to any kind of partnership.

The empathy that Keda showed the boar, though, begins to cast upon the injured wolf. He muzzles the wolf and carries it to a cave, where he puts maggots on its wound to eat out any infection. He feeds the wolf a bit of the rabbit he manages to kill, and although the wolf is growling and surly through their initial interactions, the wolf eventually comes to trust Keda and within just a few scenes becomes as tame as any dog. Again, this is artistic license, but I think even those socially open wolves from the Pleistocene would still have had clearly-defined boundaries. They might have been friendly with people, but it is unlikely that they would have become that trusting at the first point of contact.

However, this part of the film does fit nicely with the recently posited Active Social Domestication Model in which human social interactions with wolves are the main catalyst behind creating the domestic dog. This model is relatively new, but it has a lot of explanatory power, especially when compared to the Coppinger Model, which just posits that scavenging wolves in at the middens Neolithic camps begat neotenic village dogs that were later selected for their working and hunting abilities and became the breeds of dog we have today.

Keda eventually realizes that the wolf is not going to leave his side, so he begins to show it even more empathy. He gets an idea that he could train this wolf to help him the hunt, and there are several scenes where he teaches the wolf to do commands. I doubt that this happened very much early on the domestication of the wolf, especially if we are to assume that humans and wolves developed a hunting symbiosis.

Indeed, the way Keda hunts with the wolf Is awfully unlikely. He uses the wolf to herd and flush wild boar, which he kills with a spear. Wolves can hunt wild boar that way, but it seems to me that the best way to use a wolf is as a “bay dog,” in which the wolf circles and distracts the quarry, holding it in one place so that a spear can be thrown.

Keda names the wolf “Alpha,” though he uses the Solutrean word for the term, and the two begin their journey to Keda’s home grounds. On their way, the man and wolf develop a tight bond. They play at the lake together, just the same way we would with our own dogs.

One night, a pack of wolves shows up at Keda’s campsite, a black wolf lures Alpha away from Keda. The black coloration is interesting, because it is quite rare in modern European wolves. It has only been introduced to wild wolves in modern times through crossing with dogs, including in North America where it was introduced to wolves from a dog living in either the Yukon or Northwest territories several thousand years ago. What we do know, though, is that this black coloration, which is conferred in wolves and is most dog breeds through a dominant allele, originated first in the population that led to domestic dogs.

As Keda makes his way back, the Pleistocene winter sets in. He now must travel without much food through the driving, blinding snow. Through a series of misadventures, he finds himself falling through the ice on a lake, and Alpha hears his distress and runs to rescue. The whole scene where the wolf comes to rescue Keda from the ice requires lots of artistic license, but it is visually spectacular.

Alpha and Keda are reunited and begin their long journey back to the home grounds. On their way, a pack of cave hyenas (a type of Pleistocene spotted hyena) chases them into a cave. Alpha and Keda await the hyenas in the cave. The snow piled up on the entrance of the cave quakes with their footsteps, but they do not enter. We soon learn the reason for their reluctance, a cave lion has been lurking deep with in the recesses of the cavern. It charges Keda and Alpha. Alpha fights the lion bravely, and Keda takes a deep breath and throws the spear, hoping it hits only the lion. It does, and Alpha survives, though pretty badly wounded. The lion provides some sustenance, and Keda and Alpha continue to make their way to the home grounds.

When Keda arrives home, he is quite ill, and he shows up with a very sick wolf on his mother and father’s doorstep. I can only imagine what it would have been like if such a scene had occurred in real life. If these people had no concept of partnering with a wolf, I bet their first compulsion would have been to club the wolf in the head for meat and fur. But Keda tells them they must care for Alpha too.

In the final scene, Keda is healed from his illness, and he sees a neonatal wolf puppy being held up by a priestess in an induction ceremony to the tribe. We then see Alpha nursing a litter of puppies. So, it turns out that after 90 minutes of film, we learn that Alpha is a female wolf. I wish there had been some mention the wolf’s sex earlier in the film, because I was honestly not prepared for the puppies.

The father of the puppies was apparently the black wolf, because one of the puppies is black, and thus, this detail would fit with the black coloration originating in the population that led to domestic dogs. The puppies grow up in the Solutrean tribe, and the final image of the film is the Solutrean hunting party going out on a hunting expedition with their wolves walking among them.

I will give this film props for doing quite a bit of research on some of the literature that puts dog domestication in the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies of Eurasia. It posits a possible origin for the domestic dog that came from the coming of age story of one of these Pleistocene hunters.
However, the actual domestication of the dog from wolves in these societies had to have been a bit more complex than the film states. In one flashback of the film, Keda’s father discusses wolves howling around their camp and how men must behave like wolves if they are to be good hunters. Of course, the father uses the toxic memes of alpha wolves in both the canid and human society. I honestly could have done without either.

But this flashback does hint that these hunter-gatherer people had some empathy with wolves, and it is this empathy that humans had with wolves that allowed us to form this partnership. I am reminded very much of Schleidt and Shalter’s hypothesis that wolves showed man how to hunt ungulates in Eurasia more effectively.

Humans and wolves have sort of convergently evolved as cooperative hunters, and it is very likely that humans would have seen much of themselves in wolves. Plus, if Pleistocene wolves behaved like the wolves of Ellesmere, humans would not have feared them in the way they would have feared cave lions or hyenas. This is a large social carnivoran that hunts big game but does not typically target us, and those features provided just enough space curiosity, empathy, and even reverence to develop.

I think that the hunting symbiosis hypothesis for dog domestication is essentially correct, but I don’t think it came about because someone managed to tame a wolf and hunt with it. I think it simply happened because humans, as opportunistic hunters and scavengers, figured out that following wolves was a great way to get good fatty meat. Wolves constantly test ungulates by harrying them. Those that are healthy stand and fight. Those that are weak run. The wolves usually kill the weak ones. The healthy ones that stood to fight would have been easier targets for the spear, and the healthy ones are full of fat that our big brains need.

So we would have figured out that if we followed wolves we could get the good meat we needed to survive, and the wolves likely would have figured out that we were the ticket to getting an easier meal. We probably drove the wolves off the carcasses at first, but we probably left enough meat for the wolves get a lot of reward for their effort.

Further, reliance upon human societies would have allowed one wolf reproduction strategy to operate quite well. In wolf packs, a single mated pair does all the approved breeding. If another female gets pregnant, the main breeding female (sometimes called the alpha female) kills the puppies of the other female or steals them to add to her litter. Usually, this main breeding female comes in heat first, and her older puppies easily outcompete the other female’s pups.

But these females do get pregnant. That’s because on the outside of the pack territory, there are unpaired males roaming about. These females are usually the daughters of the main breeding pair, and because wolves have some inbreeding avoidance behavior and because their mother will beat them down if they try to mate with her mate, they will often try to mate with these unpaired males that roam outside the pack

One notable male wolf in Yellowstone, the so-called “Casanova,” wound up living most his life as an unpaired male that mated with these unpaired females. In the early days of the Yellowstone reintroduction, the main breeding females of several packs allowed these unpaired females to raise their litters. Prey was abundant and naïve, so there was no need to kill the pups of these females.

Keeping a single litter is a lot of work for a wolf pack, so there is a very strong need for the litters tying them down each year to be reduced to one or none. When you have more prey, these pressures are released.

It is very possible that humans provided a space for that Casanova strategy to work more often. Some of the first wolves that may have hooked up with humans on a more intimate basis could have been females that wanted to have their litters away from their murderous mothers, and humans could have felt empathy towards these female wolves, tossing them food and protecting them from predators while they raised their litters. Humans could have provided a space for wolves that bred this way to reproduce efficiently, and if you’re just mating with a male and not engaging in all the social suppression of estrus and litter culling and purloining behavior, genes can spread much more rapidly. Perhaps the wolves that had lessoned genetic tendency toward pair bonding behavior became the basis for the domestic dog, and these genes wound up swamping the entire population of wolves that became domestic dogs, which is why pair-bonding behavior is uncommon in most domestic dogs

So basing the domestication story upon a female wolf is pretty wise.

My other quibbles with the film have more to do with the depth of characterization. I never really got to know Alpha as a wolf or a dog or anything. She was just a straight-up heroic figure, but I didn’t find the whole process of her transforming from a predator that would hunt humans to an extremely dog-like wolf particularly believable. I also wanted better CGI of the cave lions and hyenas. I am a bit of a Pleistocene mammal nerd, and I really wanted more of them. But they are like phantasmal entities that lurk in as agents of death and nothing more.
The writers did do quite a bit of homework on dog domestication, but I think they could have done more and pushed for an even more compelling narrative.

Finally, the “wolf” in the film is a Czechoslovakian vlcak, a breed of dog derived from Czechoslovakian working German shepherds and European wolves from the Carpathian Mountains. They were originally bred as an “improvement” to the working GSD of communist Czechoslovakia, but they never really got off the ground in that way. However, because they are mostly German shepherd and were selected hard for temperament, they are the most successful wolfdog breed ever produced. I do wonder, though, if people watching the film will realize that this breed is what was used to portray a wolf in the film. We are already going through a bit of a boomlet with Siberian huskies in North America, which is somewhat attributed to their wolfish features. If people do realize there is a breed of wolfdog that is recognized by many kennel clubs, then I can see this breed being mass-produced and sold to gullible people without much regard for temperament. This film gives the public this bit of information, then we could see lots of these dogs in shelters and pounds, which I’m sure no responsible breeders of vlcaks wants.

No, the performance of vlcaks in Alpha was not as compelling as Jed the wolfdog, but the public is now being exposed to this breed’s existence. It is something we need to think about very carefully.

I do give Alpha major props for trying to posit the origins of the dog within European hunter-gatherer societies and to give some credence to the Active Social Model for dog domestication, but in story-telling, I just couldn’t allow myself to follow that much artistic license with Keda’s miraculous escapes from danger.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: