Our Oldest Friends
At what point did the big bad wolf become humanity’s best friend? How did it happen, and who initiated contact —the wolf or the human?
This much we know: Canis familiaris (dog) is a direct descendant of a now-extinct subspecies of Canis Lupus, or wolf. The evolutionary shift occurred no sooner, but probably much later, than around 10,000 years ago, when dogs began to develop shorter muzzles, smaller teeth and overall smaller bodies than their counterparts. The rest is up for discussion.
The 19th century inaugurated a human-driven, mostly Victorian, dog-breeding bonanza. This, compared with random breeding amongst dogs themselves and intermittent interbreeding with wolves over the past 15,000 years, has made tracing dog origins a “mess” for geneticists like Greger Larson. Or more tastefully: a “tomato soup” whose ingredients are hard to identify.
A perfect example of the genetic ambiguity is this canine corpse found in receding Siberian permafrost in late 2019. Its still-intact nose, fur, yellow teeth, and yes, even whiskers, make it seem like an unfortunate casualty of a recent harsh winter. But after radiocarbon dating, scientists determined the pup is 18,000 years old.
“It’s normally relatively easy to tell the difference between (wolf and dog),” said a member on the research team investigating the puppy. "We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both dogs and wolves.”
As to the when and the how of dog domestication, there are two lines of thought. The traditional thinking is that early hunter-gatherers nabbed wolf pups from dens. Brought up from a young age by humans, in a process repeated over thousands of years, and what do you get? Docile dogs.
But recent studies suggest a different take: dogs, or wolves, or dog-wolves became closer to humans as they fed on our leftovers. Let’s explain.
Until about 12,000 years ago, our ancestors could not plant their food, since much of the planet was covered in ice. Hunter-gatherers in cold, northern settings relied on animal protein —but not too much of it. According to the above study, “humans are not adapted to a solely carnivorous diet and are only able to digest about 20% of their energy needs from protein.” So yes, there is an evolutionary reason one’s stomach is upset after eating five Big Macs. High protein consumption can lead to hyperinsulinemia, hyperammonia, diarrhea, and even fatal protein poisoning.
Wolves, however, do not have this protein handicap. They can survive on lean meat for months. Indeed, it makes up the bulk of their diet.
Given hunter-gatherers’ reliance on animal protein during winter months (45 percent of caloric intake, according to the study) and the body’s biological limit on it, there was a surplus of meat —if only there was a creature that was savvy and sociable enough to seize the opportunity.
That early dogs took to humans because we offered free food certainly throws a nut in the dog domestication narrative. The term “domestication” is problematic because it is primarily human-centered: we are the “masters” that tame and train and impose our wills onto an unknowing “wild” animal. It appears science is suggesting otherwise: that our friendship started as a sharing of resources, a coming-together that benefitted both sides.
Our relationship with dogs is old —older than our relationship with horses, sheep, chickens, and most certainly with cats. Research on dog genetics and origins is ongoing. As Victor Hugo said, “science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing.” In the meantime, we will have our dogs, and dogs will have us.