Ice Age Mammoth Hunters Might Have Used Wolf-Dogs

Mammoth-hunting wolf-dogs may represent a failed attempt at domestication.

Posted Jul 18, 2014

Carter Niemeyer, a former Fish and Wildlife agent who knows as much about wolves as anyone I know and who is their indefatigable champion in the face of their relentless enemies, sent around a while back an Internet list of “dirty” tactics, wolves use to hunt—like driving their prey off cliffs and excessive, or surplus, killing.  The list, illustrated with photos of sheep who have charged off a cliff to their deaths, came from one of those wolf-hating groups that blanket the Mountain West like a plague of locusts and was intended to prove that wolves are stone-cold killers and implacable enemies of God-fearing people everywhere.  Because they especially like to kill domestic livestock, the argument goes, they directly threaten our lives and livelihoods.

These anti-wolf propagandists appear to have a connection to French and Russian wolf haters who, like their American counterparts, see the wolf as an instrument of the devil, if not Satan himself. Niemeyer observes in his gloss on this “blame-the-wolf” screed that animals who live in herds stampede for many reasons—fire, fierce thunderstorms, bears, big cats, earthquakes, panic, to name a few.  The presence of wolves within a hundred or even ten yards of the site does not make them responsible.

Niemeyer says that is not the same as saying wolves never hunt that way. In fact, ethologists Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter suggested in an article in Cogniton and Evolution (2003: Vol. 9, No. 1) that wolves taught the naked biped how to hunt cooperatively and ultimately how to turn social hunting into animal husbandry. It is easy to see how humans learned certain tricks of the trade, like stampeding animals over cliffs or into bogs, and later invented corrals made of sticks or stones.  Indeed, humans are masters of senseless mass killings of themselves and other animals.  But were mammoths subject to the same?

Penn State paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman (see her Psychology Today blog, the Animal Connection) proposed in a paper,  "How do you kill 86 mammoths? Taphonomic investigations of mammoth megasites," published on line last spring in Quaternary International, that the success of mammoth hunters was facilitated by the presence of a "wolf-dog." [Although the journal “supports” open access, this article is behind a pay wall.]  This large, powerful mammoth hunter has been identified in sites from Belgium to Siberia, dating from around 32,000 to 15,000 years ago in what Shipman calls "mammoth megasites."  There are sites were the remains of large numbers of mammoths are assembled, and although just what the relationship of humans and mammoths was, Shipman is among those who believe humans were hunting them.  The most successful hunters on the Eurasian Steppe, during the last Ice Age used these large proto-dogs to hunt mammoths and transport their body parts back to camp, she says.  Ultimately these mammoth-hunting canines went extinct and left no genetic heritage.

Shipman offers five “testable predictions” to support her theory, among them that the people using wolf-dogs to hunt mammoths were more successful in feeding their kin than those who did not and thereby gained an evolutionary advantage; that sites where these wolf dogs were present would have been occupied longer because the animals would have provided protection and transport; that the fierce territoriality of canids would mean that wolves and foxes were killed both for fur and for protection from their attack or attempted theft of food and thus their remains would be found in disproportionate concentrations; and that the wolf-dogs were not related to local wolves and, in fact, were fed differently by their humans—reindeer rather than mammoth.

 Shipman’s  argument is coherent and well thought out.  It raises important questions about early dogs while attempting to account for the “dog-wolves” or “wolf-dogs” whose remains appear in association with the encampments of mammoth hunters. She suggests the evidence will be found to show who these wolf-dogs were and, perhaps, why they did not survive the demise of mammoths, despite giving an evolutionary boost to the people who deployed them. Shipman’s paper raised many questions in my mind and in the minds of others, and so I asked her and have tried to reflect her arguments here.   Most important, perhaps, is recognition that dogs are social and cultural constructs who seem in one form or another to have been with us from the time our forebears left Africa and encountered the wolf. 

 A great mystery surrounds the diet of these wolf dogs.  Shipman does not offer an explanation for why they were fed reindeer, rather than the mammoth they were purportedly hunting.  Unless they were hunting eating reindeer that lived near or among the mammoths, “wolf-dogs” and people would have had to carry their food to the hunting camp.  Since some of these show signs of lengthy occupancy, provisioning the “wolf-dogs” must have been costly in terms of time and energy—so costly that “wolf-dogs” must have been deemed extraordinarily valuable.  Of course, hunters have always valued their hounds, but it is usually easiest to feed them off the bounty of the hunt.  

 It is also unclear how Shipman would determine that the disproportionate number of fox and wolf remains found at the mammoth camps would reflect a natural enmity rather than, say, killing for fur for trade or for personal use.  Wolf and fox fur are still highly prized in the Arctic, and it is documented that some Plains Indians would drape wolf skins over themselves while hunting bison.  The bison were accustomed to the proximity of wolves and apparently feared them less than human hunters. 

Jeremy Koster and Andrew Noss say in “Hunting dogs and the extraction of wildlife as a resource,” in the new Oxford University Press book, Free-Ranging Dogs & Wildlife Conservation (2014),” edited by Matthew E. Gompper,that people hunting elephants with spears must rely on stealth, and so one might imagine that the wolf skin was used for camouflage.   Mammoths need not have been hunted in that way, but it is difficult to imagine that animals weighing upwards of 20,000 pounds could be bayed up or stampeded by dogs weighing less than a hundredth of that, as Shipman suggests, unless there were many more dogs than have yet been found at any of the mammoth hunting sites across northern Europe.  

 I say that because I can more easily imagine a mammoth turning a pack of dogs into mashed canine than a pack of dogs bringing a mammoth to a stand still.  Much smaller wild boars wreak havoc on hunting dogs, for example.  I have not heard of anyone using dogs on elephants which weigh in at 12,000 pounds for a large African male, probably because they don’t farwell. 

 A quick survey of elephant experts by my fellow Psychology Today  blogger, Marc Bekoff (Animal Emotion), produced no examples of Aboriginal people hunting elephants with dogs.  

 Certainly we cannot tell much about mammoths and Paleolithic hunters by looking at elephants and the indigenous people who hunt them, but we can seek rough correspondences and make guesses.  Shipman says that we don’t know how the dogs hunted mammoths. Perhaps they simply distracted the mammoth or drove them into bogs or off cliffs. But the question might be not how but whether wolf-dogs were used to hunt mammoths.  Their role in the hunt could have been as sentinels and pack dogs, dragging or carrying the meat and tusks to camp.

 Based on what she deems an excessive number of wolf and fox remains at many mammoth-hunting sites and what she considers canine hyperterritoriality, Shipman declares that her mammoth hunting canines were implacable enemies of wolves—and the obverse. That certainly does not resemble the world we know in which dogs and wolves interbred freely for many hundreds of generations after their split—and still do in some areas. 

 Shipman recognizes that these animals could have been forerunners to modern dogs even though their mitochondrial DNA shows no relationship. But she believes it more likely that they represent a failed early attempt at domestication, and that would not be unexpected if the wolf-dogs existed only to hunt mammoths, so that when their prey vanished, so did they.   That has happened several times in the world of dogs.  Irish wolfhounds, for example, vanished from Ireland after wolves were extirpated from the British Isles.

I have other questions about these “wolf-dogs” of Pat Shipman, not least where and by whom were  they bred?  Why, in fact, does she not just call them dogs?  Still, I like the boldness of her argument, and since she has provided testable predictions, perhaps we will learn the answers to these and many other questions we have not yet formulated in the testing.


More Posts