From wolves to dogs: give the dog a hindquarter

An old Cherokee and one of his granddaughters sit by the campfire. “There are two types of wolves in life that are constantly fighting each other: one is hatred, suspicion, hostility, fear, and violence; The other is love, trust, friendship, hope and peace. “
The little girl stares into the fire for a while and finally asks, “Which of them wins?”

The old Cherokee doesn’t answer right away. When he breaks the silence, he says, “The ones you want to feed.”

– A story that is currently making the rounds for German WhatsApp groups

As I pointed out in the book How the Dog Became a Dog, and in subsequent posts on this blog, there are major problems with the widely accepted view that wolves were essentially self-domesticated by clinging to the garbage of early humans and then semi-permanent settlements with medium heaps moved in – garbage dumps. When dogs were later found to emerge in association with prehistoric hunters and gatherers, proponents of the dump diving view simply replaced proto-farmers with hunters and gatherers without seriously reworking their theory. In the transformed version, proto-dogs only got scraps of what the hunters and gatherers threw out or carelessly left behind. However, during the last Ice Age advance, early humans had no food to waste, and hence it is not clear how or why wolves would have followed their encampments.

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On January 8, Scientific Reports published an article by Maria Lahtinen of the Finnish Food Authority and the Finnish Museum of Natural History, along with several colleagues, in which it was noted that people during the Ice Age had wolves living in or near their Live camp, actively fed fresh meat. Primarily, these would have been wolves raised by pups they captured as pets. There was excess meat because humans could not digest more than 20 percent of their calorie needs from animal protein. Eating too much lean meat makes you sick. The researchers suspect that during the late glacier maximum in midwinter, ungulate prey such as elk and reindeer – which were starving themselves – would have been quite meager. People would then focus on extracting the pulp or other organ meat for the fat, leaving behind some of the lean protein that humans could actively feed to wolves that can live on lean protein for extended periods of time.

This is a nice theory that I like because it supports my own point of view. But it has some major problems. First, the researchers focus on the last months of winter, when the prey is the leaner, without considering whether humans would continue to feed their wolves with meat for the rest of the year if the fat content were presumably higher. They may still have excess meat due to the addition of fish such as salmon, berries, and other seasonal foods to their diet in late spring and summer. We know from studies that this is what the traditional diet of the Sami guardians of the circumpolar Arctic was like. Or did they kill too much to feed their proto-dogs all year long?

Lahtinen et al. Also, make the common mistake of people discussing dog domestication, assuming that there is an eternal enmity between wolves and humans, which in this case is borne by competition for the same resource. This implies that in order for wolves to be domesticated they had to change their nature from potential predators of humans to devoted, even slavish, servants. Of course this is not true. Humans and wolves have been working together and making friends since they met along the way.

Regardless of the type of settlement, the main problem with the dump-diver theory was that it left out half of the equation – that is, the human element. It always seemed as silly to claim that wolves were solely responsible for creating dogs, as it was to claim that humans were solely responsible for creating dogs. Obviously there has to be a meeting about which individual humans and wolves or groups or packs of both mutually decide. In the true sense of the word, dog creation is both a cultural and a biological event that is transforming both canine and human cultures. From this point of view, animals that can be clearly identified as dogs by their morphology emerged from wolf populations some 14,000 to 40,000 years ago in the run-up to the late glacier maximum. When the ice began to melt, they went for walks with their people and spread across Europe. When they broke new ground, they no doubt mixed up with local wolves.

My take on the process of wolves becoming dogs was based on reading the genetic and archaeological evidence so far. In anthropological literature there are examples of aboriginal people following wolves (and dingoes) on the hunt. It is easy to see how this happened as wolves, with their keen sense of smell and speed, are quick to track down prey. However, they are far less adept at killing what they haunted. In this case, the wolf-chasing humans, who were efficient surplus killers at some distance, moved in and ended the hunt. They would reward their ignorant compatriots with pieces of meat that they did not want or could not carry. There is nothing unique or unusual about it. Human hunters are also known to follow ravens to kill wolves.

My point here is that humans may have had loose alliances with wolves for thousands of years before the morphological dog appeared. Humans would have interacted with adult wolves, not puppies they had taken in. Wolves would have tolerated the human followers because they learned that in the end they would be rewarded. In cases where people have captured wolf pups by stealing them from the den or ingesting them when the parents were killed, the animals may have been hanging around but are likely to have often left once they have reached breeding age. So you still have the problem of where the proto-dog population comes from. One possibility is that the wolves, used as stalking animals, are beginning to keep burrows near human habitation. Humans could also have set up camps near the den of friendly wolves. The species then allied with one another over time due to their proximity and usefulness.

Some support for this idea comes from another scientific report by Rita Lenkei et al. Published by Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary. They found that adult wolves show signs of fear when separated from their handlers, who are not necessarily the people they cared for as pups. This suggested to Lahtinen and colleagues that most of the affinity for dog handlers has its roots in the pack structure of wolves.

As has been shown time and again with other species, if so inclined, adult wolves will relate peacefully with humans as long as humans let them make the first attempt. This evidence suggested to me that domestication involves mutual respect and tolerance, not coercion, and is a matter of degree, not of nature. Not all animals will make an effort, and not all humans are ready to receive the friendship offered.