Archaeological sites with hundreds of dead mammoths posed a puzzle to scientists: How could humans kill so many of these massive animals with the weapons available at the time? The answer is that one of the “weapons” used was not made of stone like the other tools of the time, but was made of flesh and blood. It was the domestic dog.
According to new research by Pat Shipman at Penn State University, humans may have been cooperating with some of the earliest domesticated dogs, which improved their mammoth hunting success considerably. The dogs could have contributed in a number of ways. They may have helped people find prey more quickly and more often. It’s possible that they held prey by charging and growling until the humans moved in to make the kill. After the mammoths died, dogs’ role in the hunt may have continued in the form of guarding the meat from scavengers or helping to carry it home.
Shipman developed several testable hypotheses about these new ideas. Based on analyses of what types of bones were present at the site (both dogs and wolves) as well as the cause of death of the mammoths, the idea that dogs were important in mammoth hunts about 45,000 to 15,000 years ago was supported. It is interesting that it was only during this time period that such large groups of hunted mammoths have been found, as humans (and their ancestors and extinct close relatives) began hunting mammoths over a million years ago.
A further piece of evidence that dogs were involved in mammoth hunting is the finding of a dog skull with a large bone, likely from a mammoth, that had been put in its mouth not long after it died. (That skull is shown in the photograph.) The find suggests that there were special rituals to acknowledge the dog’s role in mammoth hunting.
Knowing that modern dogs can suffer catastrophic injuries when hunting bears and wolves, I wonder how often dogs were wounded or killed in mammoth hunts.