Scientists continue to search for the earliest signs of domestication of dogs and try to understand why early humans were interested enough in canines to keep them as companions. A new analysis of fossil data, published in the journal Quaternary International by anthropologist Pat Shipman of Penn State University, suggests an interesting answer. According to Shipman, the first domesticated dogs may have effectively been a technological breakthrough which allowed primitive humans to successfully hunt huge mammoths, the shaggy ancestors of modern elephants. Dogs may have been such a useful improvement of hunting methods that they helped to contribute to the extinction of mammoths throughout Europe.
Humans and our extinct ancestors (like the Neanderthals) had been hunting mammoths for a half million years or so, with modest success and then somewhere between 15,000 and 44,000 years ago we became very good at it. The evidence for this is that what paleontologists call "megasites" began to appear. These are locations where thousands of mammoth bones can be found. So many mammoths were killed at the sites that early humans could actually use the animal remains as building material in order to construct shelters using the mammoth bones and hides.
The first breakthrough concerning the role that dogs played came when Mietje Germonpré of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences uncovered evidence that mixed in with these mammoth bones at the megasites could be found the remains of early domesticated dogs. Previous investigators had presumed that these remains were wolves that had come to scavenge at the hunt site, but anatomical measurements showed that they were large domestic dogs. The presence of dogs at the hunting site was intriguing, but the clincher was a dog skull which was found with a fragment of a large mammoth bone in its mouth. It appears that the bone was placed in this dog's mouth after death, suggesting that the dog was being honored at the time of its burial, perhaps to acknowledge its role in mammoth hunting. This particular fossil comes from the site of Predmosti, in the Czech Republic, and is about 27,000 years old. A hint that such dogs were valued and cared for comes from findings from a previous study by the University of Tubingen in Germany. It used isotopic analysis of dogs from this same site and found that the animals' had diets that were different from wolves in the same location, suggesting that humans fed the dogs.
Dogs would provide a great advantage to Stone Age hunters. According to Shipman, "Dogs help hunters find prey faster and more often and dogs also can surround a large animal and hold it in place by growling and charging while hunters move in. Both of these effects would increase hunting success."
She goes on to say that "Large dogs like those identified by Germonpré either can help carry the prey home or, by guarding the carcass from other carnivores [like wolves], can make it possible for the hunters to camp at the kill sites."
Which of our modern dogs are descended from these earliest mammoth hunters? That is not clear since analysis of the mitochondrial DNA shows that it is not similar to that of any of our modern dog breeds. It is possible that these mammoth hunting dogs were an early experiment in domestication and over time they became as extinct as the mammoths they pursued. However, given their usefulness that seems unlikely. What is more probable is that the females of this breed of dogs mated with wolves enough times over the thousands of years so that the genetic trail provided by DNA has become blurry. These wolf-dog hybrid puppies would then be reared by later humans who would still find their hunting and guarding skills useful.
Still, the idea that the little dog at my feet started off as a mammoth hunter is intriguing.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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Data from: Shipman, P., How do you kill 86 mammoths? Taphonomic investigations of mammoth megasites, Quaternary International (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2014.04.048