Pat Shipman, PhD, is a retired adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State and an internationally recognized expert in taphonomy, the study of how living animals are transformed into skeletons, and then fossils. Her scientific training and boundless curiosity lead her to take on the intriguing question of just why Homo neaderthalensis, one of the most successful apex species of hunters who had thrived for millennium in Eurasia, would almost suddenly, anthropologically speaking, become extinct. Her hypothesis: The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (The Belknap Press) points to the abilities of both certain wolves and our ancestors to pair up and this gave them the competitive edge in the battle of survival. It is certainly true that this wasn’t done intentionally, but such an evolutionary breakthrough resulted in an alliance that had devastating effects on not just the Neanderthals but on a long species list including the huge woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tigers and Cave bears. Could it be possible “man’s best friend” have been the Neanderthals’ worst nightmare ? Shipman’s thesis starts with Homo sapiens, who in expanding north out of Africa were not only as an invasive species, but the most invasive in history, wreaking ecologically enormous changes throughout continents. The evidence that she relies on, by a meticulous review of the most current archeological research and genomic and genetic studies, can perhaps most readily be seen in the mammoth remains megasites, where the number of kills increases almost exponentially after the first evidence of the wolf-dog–human alliance was discovered. For ten thousand years before the domestication of the wolf-dog, evidence of early humans hunting mega-fauna like mammoth is scant, but with the addition of the superior hunting and tracking talents that wolf-dogs contributed to our projectile throwing ancestors lead not only to more successful kills of large prey but insured the success of our two predatory species. As for the Neanderthal, it wasn’t just simply that humans bested them as hunters but climate change was also a key contributing factor: but the combo of the alliance of the apex predators with the ice age ensured their extinction, so goes evolution. As Shipman notes about the Jagger Principle, “… the immortal words of Mick Jagger (yes that one) and Keith Richards are the best statement I know of to describe evolution. Things don’t stay the same; you can’t always get what you want; but with a little flexibility, you might get what you need to survive.” This is truly a fascinating and thought-provoking book, and Shipman presents a compelling argument for how canines and humans proved their flexibility and how this could have been the main reason that we survived and the Neanderthals didn’t. But drawing upon the wisdom of another ’60s duo, we also got by with a little help from our [first] friends. See the following interview with Dr. Shipman to learn more.
Bark: How long did it take humans, once they migrated out of Africa, to team up with wolves, a species that was unknown in Africa?
Pat Shipman: There were wolves in North Africa, but my guess is that humans did not team up with them but rather, based on genetic information, with European wolves. The earliest humans in Europe date to perhaps 42,000 years ago. The earliest wolf-dogs we know at present show up about 34,000 years ago (or about 37,000, if the raw radiocarbon date is calibrated for irregularity in the deterioration of C-14). Thus, it may have taken 6,000 years, or less—I seriously doubt we have found the first wolf anyone ever attempted to domesticate.
BK: What environmental reasons led to this amazing partnership?
PS: There were many different predators in Europe when modern humans arrived; competition for prey was considerable, and even worse once humans came on the scene. The idea of domesticating any animal was completely unknown, but somehow— probably by accident—some wolves began cooperating with some humans because the alliance benefited both.