Were wolves man’s best friend?

Did our ancestors exterminate their Neanderthal cousins and, if they did, were they acting alone? 

Were wolves man’s best friend?

An American anthropologist thinks they had unlikely allies; wolves. Dr Jane Shipman, of Pennsylvania State University, makes the suggestion in a new book.

Neanderthals had lived in Eurasia for 300,000 years. Then, around 45,000 years ago, an invasive species arrived from Africa; our ancestors were the new kids on the block.

Within a few millennia, the Neanderthals were gone. Examination of their bones and stone tools suggests the last of them perished between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago. Competition for resources, it’s suggested, led to conflict between the two peoples. The ‘blow-ins’ from the south either out-competed the residents or directly exterminated them. The two species were closely related and had similar-sized brains.

The Neanderthals however, were physically stronger and better adapted to the Eurasian climate in which they had survived for such a long time. They lived in social groups, made tools and had mastered fire. They didn’t use spears as projectiles, however, but stabbed their prey at close quarters with handheld weapons. Not being able to kill at a distance, they risked injury when tackling large animals.

The newcomers from Africa, though physically weaker than the Neanderthals, were culturally superior. More socially integrated, they lived in larger groups and, presumably, had a more sophisticated culture and language. Their weapons were better and crucially, according to Shipman, their hunting methods were different. Firing arrows and throwing stones and spears, they could kill animals, such as mammoths, without having to close with them, greatly reducing their risk of injury.

Humans, modern or Neanderthal, are very slow-moving compared to other large mammals and have only a feeble sense of smell. Wolves, on the other hand, are fast-movers with an acute sense of smell.

They are much better at finding, stalking and ambushing prey then we are. For the actual kill, however, they have to get close with their victims and use their teeth. Tackling large prey, therefore, is very risky for a wolf; even a slight wound might become infected and fatal.

Shipman thinks that wolves and human hunters formed a pact with each other, becoming a formidable combination, each side supplying what the other lacked. Wolves hung around the camps of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, scavenging on food remains. It would have been easy to capture pups and train them.

In time, wolf-dog strains were bred, creatures between modern hounds and their wild ancestor. These acted as guard dogs. Scenting a large prey animal, such as a mammoth, in their vicinity, they could track down and corner it. The men would then arrive on the scene, fire arrows and hurl spears at the victim, finally stabbing it to death with lances. The wolf-dogs were rewarded with a share of the meat.

Nor did our ancestors’ problems end with the kill. Cutting up a large carcase was a risky business. Sabre-toothed cats, hyenas and cave lions, which roamed Europe and Asia at that time, would appear on the scene. Domesticated wolf-dogs could act as lookouts, barking at and harassing such would-be intruders.

A site in the Predmostí district of the Czech Republic contains an extraordinary number of animal bones, mostly mammoth ones. Huts were constructed from the bones, so hunting must have continued there over a considerable period. Around 40 wolf-dog specimens have been unearthed in Eurasia. Dog remains found near mammoth carcasses lend support to Shipman’s theory.

Our pact with wolves gave us the edge over Neanderthals. If Shipman is right, we Europeans owe our very existence to dogs!

  • The Invaders: how humans and their dogs drove Neanderthals to extinction. €27.80; Jane Shipman. Harvard University Press

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