As even irregular readers of this blog know, I have an abiding fascination with the question of how the wolf became the dog, or in the parlance of text messaging W2D. Why should the consummate cooperative hunter join forces with the big-brained naked biped and take off on a new evolutionary trajectory?
For some years now clothed descendants of that biped have argued that their forebears really had nothing to do with it, that they accepted the wolf only after it proved its subservience by eating their waste and groveling before them, pleading for attention. In short, wolves are inherently unsociable even hostile toward people and so they had to change their nature in order to become the “best friend”—or slave—of their own enemy. Humans meanwhile had to do nothing but benefit ultimately from the transformation. It does not speak well for the competence or consciousness of humans that they should have remained unaware of and uninvolved in one of the signal moments in their evolution.
I have critiqued the self-domesticating sniveling dump diver theory before in How the Dog Became the Dog and in postings to this blog, as has Lane Batot, a frequent commenter. Suffice it here to say that lacking any factual support, it persists because it is simple enough to handle in two to three sentences. I mention it again only to set the context for a look at a more plausible way humans and wolves might have begun working together without transforming their fundamental natures. These are documented behaviors readily identified as belonging to wolves and humans.
At the time of European contact with Australia, dingoes and Aborigines were the top terrestrial predators on the island continent, and they had different ways of interacting based on their environments and cultures. Along the coast where dingoes and humans were numerous and food abundant, dingoes lived like the dogs they are. The dry interior hosted sparser concentrations of dogs and people and looser relationships.
Some Aborigine groups had developed the practice of looking for signs near their camps that dingoes were hunting. Finding those, they would take off in pursuit in order to reach the kill site in time to make the kill themselves. They would then field dress their prize, usually a large kangaroo, and carry as much as they could back to camp while leaving the rest, including viscera, to the dingoes and other critters.
I was willing to consider this behavior commonsensical but rare until I encountered another reference to it, this time on YouTube in A Pure Nature Film called Wild Dog Diaries about Indian wild dogs, or dholes. The film presents a fascinating variation on the Aboriginal/dingo hunt that indirectly underscores how special the human-wolf connection must have been from the start—meaning whenever human and wolf first met on the trail of the game they were hunting.
The dhole, Cuon alpinus, is a pack-hunting canid that was considered by some dog scholars as a possible contributor to the early dog until DNA evidence fingered the wolf. Ranging from India into Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Sumatra, the dhole was heavily persecuted during the days of the British Empire in an effort to increase the number of ungulates available for sport hunting by India’s colonial rulers and their guests. For most of the 20th century, dholes were considered vermin and slaughtered. Today, the IUCN [World Conservation Union] lists them as endangered and estimates there are 2,500 dholes in the wild, mostly in India.
Wild Dog Diaries appears to be a conflation into a putative year of 12 years of filming by the team of Krupakar and Senani Hegde in India’s Bandipur and Mudumalai National Parks. It has some remarkable footage as well as some of the narrative and ideological problems that keep me from watching most nature programs.
I watched this one because Scottie Westfall, keeper of the “Retriever, Dog, and Wildlife Blog,” had alerted me to a moment in the film when we see the dholes suddenly abandon a carefully organized hunt that is about to end in a kill. We soon find that the forest people have been following dholes on their hunts and then stealing their prey. The dholes have reciprocated by quitting the hunt whenever they detect the presence of humans.
It would be nice and tidy to mark this behavior as the difference between the dingo and dhole that explains why the wolf became the dog and the dhole stayed wild. But we could as easily and perhaps more accurately say that the forest people who not long ago were taking dholes for bounty did not know that they should share the kill with the dholes, so they would be encouraged to hunt that way again. The two groups would learn from each other that sharing might mean more rather than less.
Pack-hunting canids generally target old, young, and weak animals and opportunistically engage in excessive killing. Unless they have a way to guard the excess kill from scavengers of all shapes, it does them little good. Humans, on the other hand target mature, healthy animals and are profligate hunters frequently killing more than they need.
It is common for us today to see that excess as wasteful, but it is as accurate to consider that the surplus feeds all sorts of animals, especially those who might have been helping them find their prey and drive it to slaughter. Believing that only very young wolves could form social bonds with humans, many early dog scholars focus on puppies and children as chief conduits for domestication, but hunting was the domain of mature animals, and mature modern wolves have been shown capable of forming stronger social bonds with humans than wolves raised from puppies to be sociable.
Given the amount of persecution they have suffered over the centuries, it is difficult to imagine that modern wolves are more sociable than were Pleistocene wolves. At the least we might imagine that interactions between humans and wolves would have been dynamic and fluid, as likely to lead to a dhole-like abandonment of the hunt as to a productive partnership. Both parties needed to recognize the importance of reciprocity.
With genetic evidence pointing to a rather significant domestication bottleneck involving a heretofore unidentified wolf, followed by backcrossing to wolves, it is relatively easy to imagine small groups of humans and wolves learning to hunt together and from that building a relationship that changed them and their heirs with a lot of detours along the way.