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?
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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.
They caught more prey, faster, with less risk to canine or human, which meant more energy for reproduction. Wolves had a set of skills for hunting in packs: speed, keen ears, a very keen sense of smell, sharp teeth and claws. Early humans were much slower, had lousy senses of smell and hearing, and blunt teeth, but they had distance weapons that could kill an animal while avoiding injury from close contact. By teaming up with special wolves—wolfdogs they could capture a much wider array of animals with much less risk and less expenditure of energy. They were nearly unstoppable.
BK: You write that proto-dogs were like “living tools” to humans. Was this a mutually beneficial arrangement?
PS: Absolutely. You cannot force any animal to cooperate if it does not want to. You cannot force an animal not to be hostile to humans or to cooperate with humans if there is no benefit to the animal.
BK: Wolves are highly territorial, and may kill other wolves who come into their area. Since this was well before human settlements, humans and wolf-dogs would have traveled great distances, through other species’ (i.e., wolves’) territory. Could the advantage to the wolfdogs come from the protection offered by their human partners?
PS: Both wolf-dogs and humans were more efficient hunters through cooperation— the wolf-dogs by having hunters kill the prey from a distance after they had found it, isolated it and stressed it through charging and holding it at bay.
For wolf-dogs and humans to travel together, they must have cooperated to drive off or kill the wolf packs through whose territories they passed. Indeed, there is a marked rise in the number of wolf bones in human sites after wolf-dogs appear. I think wolves were deliberately targeted by humans in order to protect the wolf-dogs, and to protect the remains of their kills from scavengers.
BK: Why do you think that Neanderthals did not also have wolf-dogs?
PS: One quite real possibility is that modern humans had adaptations that fostered better communication with wolf-dogs and possibly (we don’t know) Neanderthals did not. For example, humans are the only primates with whites to their eyes, which makes communicating the “direction of gaze”— where you are looking—very obvious. This is a huge advantage in silent cooperative hunting. We do not yet know if Neanderthals had this adaptation or not. Assuming that they saw humans working with wolf-dogs, why Neanderthals did not steal them or make their own is unclear. Humans undoubtedly prized the canines and may have gone to great lengths to prevent them from being stolen. Maybe Neanderthals did not have the empathy and ability to understand wolf-dogs that is so necessary to a good working relationship. Maybe Neanderthals tried and just couldn’t figure out how to handle them.
BK: What do you think inspired humans to see that teaming up with wolves might give them a competitive edge? Did it have to do with their diet perhaps?
PS: I don’t think humans set out to domesticate wolves into dogs; I think it was an accident based on taking in orphaned puppies and raising them. Before working with wolf-dogs, humans were rarely able to kill mammoths or other very large game; afterward, there are sites with dozens of mammoth kills. I suspect that killing mammoths efficiently and regularly required the help of wolf-dogs, so mammoths weren’t really a preferred human food until humans had wolfdogs to help.
BK: It was interesting that the primary protein source in the bones of both wolfdogs and humans can be detected. What does that tell us?
PS: First, this sort of study tells us that, at the same site, wolf-dogs and wolves ate different prey animals predominantly. (That is a very surprising finding if my colleagues and I are mistaken and the wolf-dogs are really wolves, that would make them a very odd and distinctive group.) Second, this type of study shows us that humans may have provisioned wolf-dogs, rather than letting them simply eat whatever was left over.
BK: You say that wolf-dogs were a first, but unsuccessful, attempt at domestication; and that domestication happened several times in different areas. Are you concerned that their mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) evidence hasn’t been found in modern-day canids?
PS: Not at all. There is as much mtDNA evidence that these identified wolf-dogs were wolves as there is that they were dogs: none. The mtDNA we have so far from wolf-dogs is unique, previously unknown. What that means is uncertain.
This particular genetic material is passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter and so on; the father’s mtDNA is not. This means that if you have a small population with an unusual mtDNA, the probability that it will go extinct in 1,000 years—much less 35,000—is very, very, very high.
It could be as simple as a few females who don’t reproduce successfully or have only males due to random chance. Also, athough we have several thousand mtDNA lineages from living animals, there are millions of dogs and wolves whose mtDNA is unknown. Maybe the sample sizes of living animals are too small and the wolf-dog mtDNA is still out there somewhere. Maybe it is simply extinct.
The standard calculation is that 99 percent of all mtDNA lineages go extinct, so we can’t conclude too much from that. I am not at all worried that the mtDNA information from wolfdogs has not yet been matched in any other group. Also, the entire wolf-dog group may well have gone extinct, with a still-later domestication of wolves into dogs. We just don’t know.