Why the ancestors of canines had been our colleagues not buddies

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WHEN Spanish and other European forces entered South America in the 15th century, they used dogs as weapons to massacre the indigenous human population. Sometimes, their mastiffs, enormous brutes trained to chase and kill, even fed on the bodies of their victims.

This didn’t quell the affection in South America for dogs, though. Ferocious as they were, these beasts were also novel, loyal and intelligent and a trade in them spread across the continent.

What is it about dogs that makes them so irresistible?

In Our Oldest Companions, anthropologist Pat Shipman traces the ancient drivers that led to our species’ special relationship with dogs. It is an epic, and occasionally unnerving, tale of love and loyalty, hunting and killing, gleaned from a huge amount of archaeological and palaeogenetic research.

In Shipman’s view, there was nothing inevitable about the development of the grey wolf – a fierce, meat-eating competitor – into the playful friends that we know today. As Shipman puts it: “Who would select such a ferocious and formidable predator as a wolf for an ally and companion?”

To find the answer, says Shipman, forget the old tale in which someone captures a baby animal, tames it, raises it, selects a mate for it and brings up the friendliest babies.

Instead, she argues, it was the particular ecology of Europe about 50,000 years ago that drove grey wolves and human interlopers from Mesopotamia to develop a symbiotic relationship that set the stage for our future friendship.

“Who would select such a ferocious and formidable predator as a wolf for an ally and companion?”

Working together allowed humans to tap into the wolves’ superior speed and senses, and to gain their protection against other large predators including lions. The wolves, in turn, benefited from a human’s ability to kill prey at a distance with spears or arrows.

It was a partnership that allowed them to net enough food to share, and to outcompete the indigenous Neanderthals who didn’t have a team of super-fast predators to help them.

This idea was explored in Shipman’s 2015 book The Invaders In Our Oldest Companions, she develops her argument by exploring parts of the world where dogs and humans didn’t evolve similar behaviours.

Australia provides Shipman with her most striking example. When Homo sapiens arrived in Australia, around 65,000 years ago they came without domesticated dogs, because, at the time, there was no such thing.

When the ancestors of today’s dingoes were brought to Australia about 3000 years ago, their charisma earned them a central place in Indigenous Australian folklore, but there was no incentive for the two species to live and work together. Australia was less densely populated by large animals than Europe and there were only two large mammalian predators, the Tasmanian tiger and the marsupial lion, to deal with. As a result, says Shipman, while dingoes are eminently tameable, they have never been domesticated.

With the story of humans and dogs in Asia, Shipman goes against the grain. While some researchers argue that the bond between wolf and man was first established here, Shipman is having none of it. She points to a crucial piece of non-evidence: if dogs first arose in Asia, then where are the ancient dog burials?

Cute, but there was never a good enough reason to team up with dingoes

Julie Fletcher/Getty Images

“Deliberate burial,” writes Shipman, “is just about the gold standard in terms of evidence that an animal was domesticated.” There are no such ancient graves in Asia, she points out. It is on the right bank of the Rhine in what is now Germany, that the earliest remains of a clearly domesticated dog were discovered. Known as the Bonn-Oberkassel dog, and dating from 14,200 years ago, it was found in 1914, tucked between two human skeletons, the grave decorated with works of art made of bones and antlers.

From there, domesticated dogs remained firmly in our hearts and homes There are now more than 300 subspecies, although overbreeding has left hardly any that are capable of carrying out their intended functions of hunting, guarding or herding.

Shipman passes no comment on this, but I can’t help but think it is a sad end to a story that began among mammoths and lions.

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