Wolves helped Homo sapiens outcompete Neanderthals
As wolves are slaughtered in Oregon and Washington and as wolf hunting season begins, it’s important to consider three views of how wolves were once our partners, not our enemies. Wolf-dogs may have helped our ancestors outcompete neanderthals. Wolves may have evolved into helpful dogs by training humans. Wolves became friends with our ancestors and showed them better ways to hunt. Each of the compelling views describes two species—humans and wolves—forming a partnership with both partners benefitting.
|Photo by Rick Lamplugh
The wolf we know today, Canis lupus, was evolving in Europe when the first Neanderthals appeared there about 250,000 years ago. When modern humans reached Europe about 45,000 years ago, they encountered Neanderthals who dominated that continent. Within 5,000 years of the arrival of modern humans, Neanderthals had disappeared. Wolf-dogs may have played a part in that disappearance.
“At that time, modern humans, Neanderthals and wolves were all top predators and competed to kill mammoths and other huge herbivores,” Anthropologist Pat Shipman told Robin McKie of The Guardian. Shipman, author of The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, speculates that humans formed an alliance with wolf-dogs that doomed Neanderthals.
“Early wolf-dogs,” said Shipman, “would have tracked and harassed animals like elk and bison and would have hounded them until they tired. Then humans would have killed them with spears or bows and arrows.” In addition to helping with the hunt, wolf-dogs would have kept rival carnivores and scavengers from stealing the kill—just as wolves protect their kills today.
Both wolf-dogs and humans benefitted from this remarkable partnership. “…the dogs did not need to approach these large cornered animals to finish them off—often the most dangerous part of a hunt—while humans didn’t have to expend energy in tracking and wearing down prey. Dogs would have done that. Then we shared the meat. It was a win-win situation.”
Shipman told Simon Worrall of National Geographic that these ancient wolf-dogs were not the same as modern wolves or modern dogs, though they had similar characteristics. They were large, with big teeth and a great sense of smell. They could run long and fast. Like today’s wolves, they were built to hunt.
Shipman found no evidence that Neanderthals joined forces with wolves. As she told Worrall, “They continued to do things in the same old Neanderthal way as life got hard and times cold. They continued to hunt the same animals with the same tools in the same way. And that lack of adaptability may have been a telling failure as [modern humans] moved in. If you then add in wolf-dogs, Neanderthals were at a terrific disadvantage.”
Wolves may have evolved into dogs by training humans
|Photo by NPS
A second compelling view on partnering with wolves comes from Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter in their journal article, “Co-evolution of Humans and Canids.” The authors theorize that sometime after the last Ice Age, early humans stumbled upon wolves bringing down reindeer. The humans may have been as hungry as those wolves, but they couldn’t hunt as well. Stomachs growling, they puzzled over how to plunder some of their competitor’s bounty. Eventually humans partnered with wolves. Schleidt and Shalter believe that the first contacts between the two species were mutual and “subsequent changes in wolves and humans must be considered as a process of co-evolution.”
We evolved together as partners, and as centuries passed, the partnership led to wolves becoming dogs, Canis lupus familiaris. Schleidt and Shalter present an intriguing view of who trained whom: “…scavenging wolves took the initiative and conned the affluent hunting and gathering humans into sharing their plenty, by pretending to be their obedient servants and hunting companions.” In other words, wolves may have chosen and trained us, much to our benefit.
Wolves showed our ancestors better ways to hunt
|Photo by Rick Lamplugh
A third view on human-wolf partnership comes from Mark Derr in his book, How the Dog Became the Dog. Derr proposes that fifteen to twenty-thousand years ago nomadic hunters following game encountered a pack of wolves. The hunters and wolves did not fight or flee. Instead, some of those humans and wolves were right for one another, were both sociable and curious. Those wolves were capable of overcoming fear of a creature from another species and making what Derr calls “a leap of friendship.”
After that leap, our ancestors learned from wolves. They observed wolves hunting herds of prey and tried some of the predators’ tactics. The new approaches produced more meat than the hunters could consume or carry, and they left the excess. Wolves ate their fill and tasted how they could benefit from humans. Those hunters had begun the long process of domesticating Canis lupus into man’s best friend.
Derr’s image of two intelligent and resourceful creatures meeting on a trail, befriending one another, and evolving together places the wolf in a well-deserved positive light. Wolves that eventually became dogs were not, as the prevailing theory goes, rejects from their packs that slinked around in the shadows of the nomads’ campfires and begged for food. This distinction is important. Which would you respect and value more: an animal capable of making a leap of friendship or a reject begging for a handout?
What brought us to the war on wolves?
The war began when human hunters became herders. No longer a nomad with a limitless horizon, a herder’s territory shrank to the boundaries of a small patch of land. His family survived on what that patch produced. Any animal that ate the herder’s sheep, goats, pigs, or cattle took food from the family and reduced their chances of survival.
Those all-important patches of land were often in wolf territory, where wolves did what they still do best: pick the easiest prey possible. And, as today, wolves paid the price for our infringement onto their territory. The killing of livestock changed our relationship with Canis lupus for the worse. We were no longer two species partnering. We became two species competing. And wolves pay the price.