Taming the Wolf – Domesticating the Dog

Little wolfThe first evidence for domesticated dogs has just got earlier with the recent dating of a dogs skull and teeth from Kesslerloch Cave in Switzerland. That puts the transition from wolf to dog to over 14,000 years ago. Previously, the earliest date was from a single jawbone that was found in a human grave at Oberkassel, in Germany, dating to about 13,000 years-ago. (There are earlier dates claimed for the first definite identification of dogs but these are usually discounted by experts).

The finds from Switzerland were uncovered in 1873 but it was only last year that archaeologists at Tubingen University in Germany recognised that the remains came from a dog rather than a wolf. The dating carried out on a tooth has revealed the animal died between 14,000 and 14,600 BP (before present).

These early dates are curious, as hunting strategies at that time would not necessarily require the assistance of dogs. Studies from northern France show that hunting was ambush based with animals speared as they passed through natural bottlenecks in the landscape, such as the Ahrensburg Valley. Here, the use of a spear-thrower increased the effectiveness of the weapon and the migrating reindeer died in great numbers. Interestingly, some people engraved their spear-throwers with scenes of the hunt but none shows the appearance of dogs. Indeed, in such a massacre, it is difficult to see how dogs would fit in at all and, yet, the remains from Switzerland suggest that they existed by this time.

It is likely that animals that chose to live with humans bred with other animals that adopted a similar lifestyle, replicating the traits that made the animal tolerant of humans. Slowly, the camp-wolves became the camp-dogs. In effect, the dog domesticated itself.

Stalking, the hunting method where a dog might have proved invaluable, came later. The warming climate at the end of the Ice Age caused large game animals to either die-out or move north and it was red deer and wild boar that took advantage of the advancing tree cover to expand their range. The people of the time changed their hunting strategy accordingly and the bow and arrow now became the weapon of choice. Dogs would have proved invaluable for stalking, flushing, and tracking dying animals. This is the time that we might expect people to have actively sought to domesticate the dog but, from the evidence at Switzerland, it had already happened, presumably without any human intervention. The change from wolf to dog requires a different explanation.

It is likely that wolves had always been aware of humans in the landscape. Scavenging human kill sites would have been a sure way of obtaining food and it is likely that this became the main survival strategy for a few packs. Over time, they may have ventured closer to human camps and even started to forage leftovers or eat any excrement that lay nearby. The people at the camp may have welcomed this cleaning service and tolerated the presence of the wolves. They may have even kept other, more dangerous predators at a safe distance.

Over time, it is likely that animals that chose to live with humans bred with other animals that adopted a similar lifestyle, replicating the traits that made the animal tolerant of humans. Slowly, the camp-wolves became the camp-dogs. In effect, the dog domesticated itself.

It is likely that the dogs did not remain in packs for long but divided themselves between the family groups of the hunters. Evidence from modern hunter-gather villages where semi-tame dogs roam, shows that these animals do not necessarily form packs but tend to organise themselves into groups of no more than three, which then adopt a particular dwelling (and its occupants) as their own. In the past, perhaps this was the reason that people began to interact with dogs on an individual basis and the first relationships, with which we are now so familiar, began.

A burial from Israel dating to around 11,000 BP contained an elderly woman with her hand resting on the flank of a puppy. This may be the first sign of the affection we still hold for dogs but it was not until much later, during the Mesolithic, that the esteem in which people held them becomes apparent.

In the earliest cemetery at Skateholm in southern Sweden, dating to around 5,000 BC, dogs were sometimes buried in the same graves as people. These were likely animals that were sacrificed to accompany their masters into the afterlife. Clearly, the dog was considered indispensable by some.

Hunting Dog

Other dogs were afforded their own grave and people gave them items such as tools and weapons that would usually be the preserve of a hunter. But then, perhaps this is exactly what these dogs were considered to be: hunters and, accordingly, they were buried as such.

At this time, grave wealth usually accumulated to the young and fit, likely reflecting their ability to provide food for the others. The dogs were no different: they provided food from the hunt and they were honoured in the same way. Moreover, this was a time before any other animal had been domesticated and the cognitive boundary between humans and animals was still fluid enough to be breached: sometimes human into animal and, on this occasion, animal into human. It was a very different way of seeing the world and is almost diametrically opposed to everything we think about animals.

It was not to last. Perhaps familiarity bred contempt, but in a later cemetery at Skateholm (and possibly dating to only a few hundred years after the first cemetery), dogs were afforded a separate area for their burials, before being excluded altogether. Dogs had moved from being equal to humans in the hunt to being subservient to their masters. Perhaps, as their usefulness increased, their worth actually diminished. We still retain something of this contradiction in our own relationship with dogs. They can be our closest companions but are also the source of our cruellest insults. A bitch can be both our best friend or our worst enemy.

There is even evidence that the minds of dogs have evolved since they have been interacting with humans. Observing and identifying the attention state of others was thought to be the sole preserve of humans and yet it appears to be something dogs can also accomplish. Anyone who has had their dog watch their every move when they walk towards the dog lead will know how this appears.

Our relationship with dogs has come a long way since the first wolves started to follow the camps of our Palaeolithic forebears. We may never know for sure what made these wild animals befriend us and change to become an altogether different species but I am sure that I am not alone in being extremely grateful that they did.