Sharing Scraps With Wolves May Have Created Man's Best Friend

Dogs are thought to have evolved from wolves scavenging our garbage, but now a paper posits that humans hunting megafauna would have had scraps to spare for their proto-pets

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Man, dog and meat
We don’t actually know when or where the dog was domesticated, let alone how, and scavengers that captured our hearts fits with the evidence. Credit: BublikHaus /
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It’s a charming notion. Sharing meat scraps with wolves in the dead of winter possibly as long as tens of thousands of years ago may have wound up creating man’s best friend, a new paper in Scientific Reports suggests.

Only in winter? No sharing in summer or spring? That’s a twist in the new hypothesis by Maria Lahtinen of the Finnish Museum of Natural History, University of Helsinki and colleagues, which ties together several facts to reach that startling conclusion: Two species in competition over resources – each capable of killing and eating the other – wound up in love.

Why would people who had hunted a hefty herbivore share any of their prize, let alone with a competing species, and why in winter?

One fact on which the authors base their theory is that most prehistoric sites with dog remains or “incipient dog remains” were found in cold areas, analogous to arctic and subarctic environments (but not all). Which leads to the next fact: that in winter, the big animals that people hunted until they went extinct were lean – they built up fat during the warmer months that sustained them in winter.

This ties in with pertinent fact No. 3: Human beings can only derive so many of their calories from protein, i.e., lean meat.

Separate research has shown that over-indulging in meat results in protein poisoning because the liver can’t process that much. Moreover, the body can’t exploit the energy in the protein beyond that point and toxins accrue in the blood. Tel Aviv University Prof. Ran Barkai has long been arguing that prehistoric humans and hominins craved caloric intake from fat, not only meat. Humans and their predecessors have even been cracking the long bones to get at the fatty, nutritious marrow for hundreds of thousands of years.

A Tel Aviv dog walker: As they co-evolved with us, dogs developed musculature that enables them to wiggle their eyebrows expressively at usCredit: Eyal Toueg

So if a small group of hunter-gatherers lands an elephant or elk, theoretically they couldn’t eat the whole thing in winter: They would have had a surplus of lean meat, researcher Lahtinen and her team assess.

For the canine set lurking around the cave, that is a boon – they evolved to eat meat. (We evolved as omnivores: Apparently our ancestors added meat to the diet around 2.5 million years ago.)

Bowser wowser

Actually the theory of domestication due to sharing isn’t new. “Dogs were probably domesticated by accident, when wolves began trailing ancient hunter-gatherers to snack on their garbage,” as the Verge put it in 2017.

Then if there were relatively nice wolves eating these scraps, cringing ones, the appreciative hunter-gatherers might have thrown them more meat, thus these docile wolves would have had better chances of surviving and passing down their genes. And now we have Shih Tzus. Well.

But the new study adds the calculation that the hunter-gatherers of prehistory would plausibly have had scraps to provide. It’s impossible to prove that this theory is correct, but it does flesh out the picture. What else could they have done with leftover meat?

Even though some hominins are postulated to have used wood ash as a preservative (in a very different time and case), in winter the meat would eventually rot, albeit more slowly than in summer, and nobody wants that. So, the team postulates, it was literally thrown to the proto-dogs.

A Tel Aviv dog lover with his pet. Humankind ate many of the megafauna to extinction, and had to do with smaller prey. Including, sometimes, Fido.Credit: Moti Milrod

So the hypothetical sharing wasn’t a matter of compassion for a hungry wild animal, though we know humans and even their hominin cousins, such as the Neanderthals, were capable of sympathy. We know that because some prehistoric modern humans and Neanderthals survived mortal wounds, so they cared for one another (ditto a mangled cat who survived in Kazakhstan 1,000 years ago – he had to have been somebody’s pet).

We know that a puppy died of distemper after weeks of illness 14,000 years ago – its condition was deduced by Luc Janssen, a veterinarian archaeologist – and that without loving care, the animal wouldn’t have survived that long. Janssen postulated that the case of the puppy’s care and burial (along with a man and a woman and another dog) shows that even then, the relationship between man and mutt was probably not merely utilitarian but emotional too.

Bottom line: The hunter-gatherers shared meat with wolves because even after stuffing themselves they would have had enough left over to share with their proto-pets, the researchers contend.

Enter the dog

Maybe. We don’t actually know when or where the dog was domesticated, let alone how, and scavengers that captured our hearts fits with the evidence.

Burials with wolves, dogs – and puppies – go back more than 14,000 years so unless dewy-eyed baby dogs were considered appropriate grave goods, their domestication was before that. Genetic analyses have been inconclusive but they generally indicate that domestication was indeed earlier.

But at this point we can’t even say we know that dogs were domesticated only once, as opposed to multiple domestication events in different geographic areas – Europe and Asia. It is possible that the relationship with the human species goes back as much as 40,000 years and that multiple dog lineages arose.

It bears adding that it seems the North American doggy didn’t arise directly from wolves but from domesticated ancient Siberian dogs that crossed the Bering Straits with humans. This “native American” strain was later largely supplanted by European domesticated dogs.

Sled dogs before a race in New Hampshire, in 2019. Our ancestors appreciated the dog and the services it provides, from helping with hunting to guarding and manual labor.Credit: Joseph Prezioso / AFP

As they co-evolved with us and the postulated scavenging proto-dog became a pet, dogs developed musculature that enables them to wiggle their eyebrows expressively at us. We melt like ice cream in hell when they do that. Most wolves, by contrast, do not have the musculature to communicate with their eyebrows.

And in time, our ancestors developed an appreciation for the dog and the services it can provide, from helping with the hunt to guarding and manual labor, i.e., pulling sleds.

A paper published in 2017 described a 9,000-year-old site in the eastern Siberian Arctic, Zhokov, where evidence of a fully domesticated dog (morphologically distinct from the Siberian wolf) and dog sledding were proven. That means it developed earlier: Some think dogsledding in Siberia may go back at least 15,000 years.

Thousands of years later, but still in prehistory, dog teeth were perforated and worn as pendants in Europe. Examples include a child’s burial in the third millennium B.C.E. in Armenia, reported in the journal of Antiquity in 2016 There is even a dog cemetery in ancient Ashkelon dating to the 5th century B.C.E., indicating – though not proving – a special relationship with the canine.

Ancient petroglyphs found in the Negev in southern Israel, showing deer, dogs and human beings.Credit: Davida Eisenberg-Degen

It bears qualifying that the human relationship with the dog has not been a linear progression from consternation to appreciation and even faith that Fifi will join us in the afterlife. Other studies have shown that our ancestors did not cavil at eating dogs too, and there are societies that do so to this day, and others in which the dog is a pariah. The ancient North Americans may have brought dogs with them from Siberia and those dogs presumably pulled their sleds, after which the evidence indicates that at least some were eaten.

In other prehistoric culinary news, a canine skull fragment was found among fossilized human feces in a cave in Texas, dating to 9,400 years ago; a few thousand years later central Eurasians were roasting and eating dogs, primarily male ones, leading to the theory that killing and eating dogs was involved in a rite of passage for boys.

The list goes on. In fact some researchers suspect that if our ancestors had a motive for domesticating the dog, it was less a labor of love and more for the meal. That might help explain why dogs today stem from one lineage, while domestication is believed to have happened more than once. In other words, like the giant sloth and the mammoth, maybe we ate the others to death.

But first of all people both love bunny rabbits and eat them too, without a second thought. Secondly, humankind simply ate many of the megafauna to extinction, and had to do with smaller prey. Including, sometimes, Fido.

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