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Man’s best friend

Man’s best friend Ilya Andriyanov
03 May
When it came to mastering their ancient hunting grounds, ‘modern’ humans had a technological advantage over their Neanderthal rivals – the dog

Humans (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals shared the same spaces for thousands of years before the latter group died off. Suggestions for the Neanderthals’ demise include diseases caught from humans, climate change and genocide. But competitive pressure over game is another possible explanation gaining ground, and man’s alliance with dog’s ancestors appears to be the key.

‘If modern humans formed an unprecedented alliance with wolves – another top predator in the ecosystem – then together they probably forced Neanderthals into extinction by simply out-competing them,’ says Pat Shipman, a former anthropologist at Harvard University. ‘Almost immediately after the appearance of modern humans in Eurasia, we see Neanderthals diminishing in genetic diversity, number of archaeological sites, size of sites, number of bones of prey in the sites, and population numbers.’

Dogs and wolves are very similar so telling their ancestors apart can be tricky. Research in Belgium dates the oldest dog skeleton to 36,000 years ago, around 20,000 years earlier than previously thought. ‘The ancient dogs – or what I call wolf-dogs because I don’t want people to think they are like poodles or retrievers – are genetically distinct but cannot yet be linked to modern domestic dogs,’ says Shipman.

No other species had been domesticated at this time. ‘It seems most likely that the practice started with humans taking in a wolf pup or two and, over time, establishing more effective communication with the less fearful and aggressive pups. This led to a group of genetically selected wolf-dogs that would work cooperatively with humans,’ says Shipman. With a domesticated or semi-domesticated wolf-dog advantage, modern humans could then easily out-compete the pet-less Neanderthals.

‘We also see a major change in archaeological sites created by humans around this time and an improved ability in hunting and retaining control of carcasses, despite increased competition for them,’ says Shipman.  ‘This is a key line of evidence that these wolf-dogs were at the very least semi-domesticated.’

This article was published in the May 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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