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Q&A with Mark Derr about Dog Origins
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To reiterate an important point, which I’ve made in numerous articles in The Bark and in my books, there is no evidence that dogs originated from selftamed, submissive, neotenic wolves. That theory — which is based on dogs originating during the Mesolithic Age, when people lived in settlements with garbage dumps — is not right. Dogs evolved much earlier than that and were in the camps with the hunters and gatherers.

CK: Back when we were both hunting the same species — together or separately — is it possible that wolves were hunting us too?
MD: I don’t know of any record of wolves hunting humans, though humans have long hunted wolves. The Plains Indians had wolves around the bison they were hunting, and there is strong evidence that shows their dogs regularly crossbred with the wolves. And sometimes to the point where it was not possible to distinguish between wolf and dog. The thing about human behavior is that much of it is fixed; even the tools we use are basically the same. It might be made from different materials, but a knife is still a knife.

Take an example from Lewis and Clark, who describe great herds of bison out there on the plains, and the Indians who hunted them with their dogs. The wolf is described by Lewis as the “shepherd” of the bison. The way wolves hunt really isn’t that much different than the way herding dogs gather animals.

People like Barry Lopez have done work on the business of wolves and human cultures, and why wolves are so distrusted by humans. The answer, I suspect, is that once dogs and agriculture were firmly established, a divorce occurred between humans and wolves (and other wildlife), because those animals were seen as threatening our livelihoods. At some point, the wolf became a competitor — an enemy, even — not because it was hunting us, but because it was taking our livestock. The mediating force is the dog.

More recently, the conservation movement established a sharp divide between the wild and the built, a divide that really shouldn’t exist, but does. At that point, the wolf became one thing and the dog became another, and they are in opposition rather than what they are, which is very closely related. I don’t think that the wolf has ever been an enemy of humans, but I could be wrong.

CK: Pat Shipman, archaeologist and author of The Animal Connection, pointed out that it was unlikely that wolf packs tracked nomadic hunters in order to live off their spoils (among other things) because those wolves would have had to cross the territory of other wolves, which would have been highly dangerous for them. So it was more likely that the dogwolf and the human were partners in the hunt. What’s your take on that?
MD: I agree. The other thing is — and this goes back to the food issue — humans are much more prof ligate hunters than wolves, and also take reproducing-age adults. Those are usually the strongest animals, and provide the best and most food. Wolves take the old and the young. Interestingly enough, once humans domesticated animals, we also tended to cull the very young and the beyond-reproduction-age females. So we came to eat more like wolves. I also firmly believe that humans and wolves just liked each other.

CK: Besides our shared characteristics, what else do we have in common with dogs?
MD: We are both extremely defensive of our territory, protecting home and hearth no matter where that is. We also both like to be on the move — we like going walkabout. Anybody who has dogs knows they love to come out with you. Dogs like to go for rides. Or, open a gate and the dog is gone. We value one another’s companionship, and we keep each other warm at night.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 69: Mar/Apr/May 2012
Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and editor in chief. thebark.com

Illustration Amadeo Bachar

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