There’s nothing else on Earth like the relationship between dogs and humans. Sure, there are plenty of other examples of inter-species collaboration and cooperation throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. But nothing approaches the depth and significance of the bond and the history of dogs and humans.
Wherever you find homo sapiens sapiens, there is Canus lupus familiaris.. Sadly, our treatment of these animals often leaves much to be desired. From puppy mills to tail docking and the ethics of pure-breeding, there’s a lot we’ve got to be accountable for in our relationship with dogs. For many, dogs are treated as a commodity more than they are treated as our friends and companions. We often tend to think of dogs as being things which we own, instead of beings we share the world with.
Even the way we tend to think of the history dogs and our relationship with them largely implies a sort of ownership. We talk about how we domesticated them, as if it were almost an act of enslavement. But to what extent is this interpretation actually supported by the historical and archaeological evidence? Maybe the wonderful relationship between dogs and humans is more nuanced than that. What if, rather than taming and subduing the wild wolf, dogs and humans domesticated each other?
A Long History
It seems that dogs first emerged around 40,000 years ago, at the peak of the last ice age.But humans and the ancestors of dogs have been around each other for much longer than that. Evidence shows that wolves and humans have hunted and lived in the same areas for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s probably from this ancient familiarity that the possibility for eventual cohabitation and cooperation emerged in the first place.
The exact genetic lineage of modern dogs is hard to pin down, as there has been so much interbreeding between ancient dogs and other canids throughout the long history of the species. The most prevalent theory today is that both the modern gray wolf and the dog evolved from a now extinct ancient wolf, somewhere around 27–40 thousand years ago. It’s unclear whether humans had any part in this evolutionary branching, but given the archaeological evidence for ancient dogs from over 30,000 years ago, it’s quite likely that dogs separated from wolves independently of human intervention. That is, there’s some evidence to say that dogs were dogs before they hooked up with humans. One skull found in Russia belongs to an ancient dog ancestor now called the Altai Dog is believed to be 33,000 years old. And the Goyet dog, whose remains were found in Belgian caves, is even older — around 36,000 years.
To put thins into perspective, humans wouldn’t develop agriculture until about 10,000 years ago. In other words, dogs have been part of human culture for as long as humans have had culture.
The relationship goes back so far that it is now widely accepted (again, due to archaeological evidence) that humans brought dogs with them when they first migrated to the Americas over the Bering land bridge. And the famous dingo of Australia? Well, they’re almost certainly the descendants of ancient domesticated dogs that were brought to the island continent by the first human inhabitants.
But how did the relationship between our ancestors and the ancient dogs originate? There’s maybe no better symbol for this prehistoric alliance than footprints found in France’s famous Chauvet Cave. 26,000 years ago, a child around 10 years old walked through the cave, perhaps to visit the paintings which have made the cave famous so many thousands of years later. The child, carrying a torch, left footprints that could be seen by their descendants, connecting them to us across an expanse of time too vast to contemplate. And that child wasn’t alone: in the soot of that torch, next to the small tracks left by that young person who lived and died over twenty-thousand years before the ancient civilization of Sumer, were found the unmistakable paw prints of a large, ancient dog.
The Beginnings of a Beautiful Friendship
Humans are incredibly social, cooperative, and communicative creatures. Everything that makes us what we are comes down, in one way or another, to that characteristic fact. Which is actually a pretty remarkable thing, when you consider our extended family.
Consider our closet relative: the chimpanzee. They look quite a bit like us. They demonstrate considerable intelligence, and show the capacity to use tools. We share with them most of our DNA. But when it comes to social behavior, it’s like we’re from different planets.
Chimps don’t very much like to cooperate. They will work together to achieve their own personal goals, but they seem incapable (or uninterested) in cooperating for the sake of someone else. They’re collaborations seem to begin and end, more or less, with group hunting. Chimps are also famously violent, engaging in brutal warfare against other groups of chimps, and exhibiting extreme and sometimes lethal violence within the group, as well.
Other apes, like the bonobo, are less violent than our closer relatives the chimps. But even with the other apes — as incredible as they are, and they certainly are incredible — there’s nothing like the type of cooperation you see in human societies. But humans aren’t the only social species around: wolves are amongst the most collaborative and social creatures in all of the animal kingdom. Could it be that we learned a little something from them?
Maybe that seems far-fetched, but why should it? It’s universally accepted that the relationship between us and our canine friends has profoundly impacted their evolutionary history. Why should we expect that this was a one-way relationship?
Consider how humans and ancient dogs first came together. As mentioned, humans have always lived near and around canines. At some point, in the midst of the last ice age, we came together. Hunting and living in the same areas, dogs and humans would have regularly been on each other’s turf, and hunting the same prey. Each group had certain skills and abilities that the other lacked.
Humans, for instance, had fire. And maybe it was the smell from our ancestors’ camp fires that first attracted the more social and less fearful amongst the ancient dogs to approach. Both groups probably realized the benefits of being near one another: the dogs enjoying potential scraps from human fires and kills, while humans enjoy security provided by the nearby canines, who would howl and bark when detecting an intruder. With neither predator having much of a reason to do harm to the other, this cautious relationship would probably grow more intimate over the centuries, until both dogs and humans considered each other’s areas to be part of their own home territory — one and the same turf. Both species began living together and cooperating directly.
It’s easy for us to think of the advantages dogs would receive from our friendship. But what about what we learned from them? For one, we probably learned a lot about hunting from our four-legged friends. Wolves are famous for their ability to take down large prey by hunting as a well-organized group. Humans would become fearsome big-game hunters, driving many large species to extinction. But we didn’t always hunt that way — that’s a skill we learned only since the last ice age. We certainly didn’t learn this from other apes. Maybe we learned it from the dogs.
Learning From One Another
What about our famous communicative skills? Here again, we’re more like canines than we are like other apes. While we’ve been able recently to train some apes to use rudimentary sign language, it’s exceedingly difficult to get apes to use that skill to communicate with us except for in the most direct way. But with dogs, we have rich and complex communications, and it goes both ways.
Dogs have an innate and incredible ability to read human body language, facial expressions, tone, and even gestures. No other creature comes close the dogs in their ability to understand what we are thinking and feeling. And the same is true of us. We understand innately whether a dog is frightened, angry, playful, or even nervous. We can read all sorts of things about their emotional state from the sound of their bark, or the movement of their tails. This remarkable rapport that we share with dogs was built over thousands of years of cooperation and cohabitation. It’s something that we co-evolved. We understand them better than anyone else does, and they in turn understand us. How much did this mutual development of empathic and communicative skills influence human language, thought, and culture? It’s impossible to say for sure.
Even the development of human civilization may have been largely shaped by our relationship with dogs. One of the most significant changes in human culture (perhaps, aside from our partnership with dogs!) was the development of agricultural systems. It’s unlikely, though, that humans went directly from hunter-gatherer societies to the agrarian societies of the fertile crescent. Pastoralism has been in some ways a middle-way between the sedentary agricultural and the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
And the wolves were doing it first. Centuries before humans, wolves were chasing the great herds across Eurasia, picking off stragglers and following the migrations of reindeer and other herd animals.. Humans, too, would take up this lifestyle, from the vast North American prairies to the Eurasian steppe, entire cultures were developed around this way of life. And it’s entirely possible that it’s something we learned from our canine partners.
The History of Dogs is The History of Humanity
Dogs and humans have coexisted and cooperated for so long that it almost seems as though you couldn’t have one without the other. The partnership between ancient dogs and our human ancestors, which began tens of thousands of years ago, is one of the most influential developments in the history of human culture and civilization. Millennia before the pyramids of Egypt, before the rise and fall of Sumer, and even before the arrival of people in the Americas, we were living, hunting, and playing with dogs. It’s something that we should consider when we see dogs in glass boxes in mall pet stores, or when supporting the pet breeding industry while the kennels and shelters are overfull. We should always remember that dogs are our best and oldest friends, and we should treat them with the respect that that friendship deserves.