Our relationship with dogs dates back to antiquity.
Archaeologists have discovered that 14,000 years ago people buried dogs next to their owners.
Despite ample evidence that dogs were the first animal to be domesticated by humans, the origin of our relationship with dogs is still a hotly debated issue.
There are two main competing theories on how the human-dog alliance began in Europe or Asia between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago.
The interspecies adoption theory says that we accidentally domesticated prehistoric gray wolves, the common ancestor of all dogs.
According to this theory, the domestication of the pups of these wolves by humans led to the emergence of dogs.
The commensalism theory suggests that wolves essentially self-domesticated, roaming around human settlements in search of discarded food residues.
Commensalism is the name given to one of the types of symbiosis established by two organisms in ecology. In this relationship, one creature benefits, while the other is unaffected by this partnership.
“More tame, less aggressive wolves would do better in this relationship,” says Krishna Veeramah of Stony Brook University in New York, who makes the commensalism argument for wolves.
“Over time, humans would develop some sort of symbiotic relationship with these animals, while initially not benefiting from this process, and eventually the dogs we see today would emerge.”
“They were in competition”
Pat Shipman, a retired anthropology professor and renowned specialist in the history of human-animal interactions, says there is a strong bond between these two species, which previously had little interest in companionship.
“Taming animals is a standout when we consider all the inventions we’ve made and the shortcuts we’ve used,” Shipman says.
“But the wolves were not easy to tame. Not only were they dangerous, but they competed with humans for food.”
The retired professor explains that wolves and humans come to see the benefits of cooperation. For humans, wolves have become protectors against enemies as well as partners in the pursuit of larger prey.
As archeology shows, wolves/dogs have become part of large human families. Next to the cemeteries, prehistoric cave paintings have also been found depicting them as similar to domestic animals.
“They ruled the food chain”
In his recently published book, “Our Oldest Friends,” Shipman suggested that cooperation with dogs was one of the reasons that could explain how homosapiens defeated our closest relatives, the Neanderthals.
“The human-wolf alliance dominates the food chain,” Shipman explains.
The commensalism hypothesis has recently gained new momentum: in a study published at the end of December, Finnish researchers suggested that hunter-gatherers shared their surplus meat with wolves, because humans could not – and no longer can – live on protein alone.
“After this early period, the earliest domesticated dogs would have been tamed in a variety of ways, such as hunting companions, pack animals, and guards,” the researchers wrote.
James Serpell, an expert in human-animal interaction at the University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t dispute the idea that dog domestication is mutually beneficial for both species.
But in a paper published last April in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, Serpell argues that cross-species adoption is a more plausible explanation for the conversion from wolves to dogs.
For those unfamiliar with the subject, Serpell points out that the size of the human population was much smaller than tens of thousands of years ago. People who tended to live in small scattered groups also did not produce much waste.
“Also, when you look at modern hunter-gatherers, they don’t throw things away,” Serpell says.
“There are many examples in the literature of hunter-gatherers deliberately hiding animal remains so that other animals cannot find them.”
Serpell thinks our ancestors “didn’t want large carnivores to frequent their colonies”:
“The modern Bushman hunter-gatherer community in South Africa is developing special techniques to scare away lions. So in the past, the last thing people wanted was to welcome dangerous animals into their community.”
However, Serpell and other proponents of the interspecific ownership theory suspect that our ancestors weren’t that different from us in loving baby animals.
They claim that ancient humans captured wolf cubs and often released them into the wild when the animal grew.
But some captured pups may have enjoyed human company and wanted to spend time with humans.
“When you breed these unusually tame and friendly wolves, you can get this new breed of animals that is very different from the wild type,” Serpell says.
“But it was by chance rather than by plan at first.”
The right animal at the right time?
The first domestication of the dog took place not so long ago. It is possible that one day we will find definitive evidence of how this happened, but until then it will remain a mystery.
But experts who make both the “possession” and “feed the scraps” arguments agree that no animal other than the wolf can be our “oldest friend.”
Pat Shipman says, “We interacted with the wolves as fellow hunters. What we wanted out of life back then wasn’t all that different from what the wolves wanted.”
“Earlier in human history, we domesticated most animals for food or to carry loads.”
James Serpell also agrees that wolves and humans are “pretty compatible”.
“Some scientists say wolves and humans are pre-adapted to live together because they eat the same things, their communities are similar in size, and they receive similar care from their parents,” Serpell says.
“We had a lot in common.”